By Amanda Woods
Fourteen actors occupied two rows of chairs on a lit-up stage in an otherwise darkened theater. They came from various acting backgrounds—some star in TV series such as The Walking Dead and Mad Men, while others take the stage in Broadway shows such as A Chorus Line and Come Back, Little Sheba. They united at Manhattan’s Players Club on Monday evening as actors in the Frog and Peach Theatre Company’s reading of William Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Proceeds from the occasion benefited Frog and Peach, based at 840 West End Ave. and founded in 1996 by the husband-and-wife team of Lynnea Benson—also the director of the reading—and Ted Zurkowski, both lifetime members of The Actor’s Studio.
They started the theater because they were dissatisfied with the approaches of other Shakespeare performances, Benson said. Frog and Peach looks to engage new audiences with Shakespeare; all of the actors performing in King Lear were dressed in modern attire but didn’t lose the accents, intonation and drama that remind
the audience of Shakespeare’s signature style and the 17th-century time period.
The theater recruits accomplished actors for its performances. The King Lear lineup included Jeffrey DeMunn, who is playing Dale Horvath in The Walking Dead, as Lear;
Peter Gerety, who just completed Flight, starring Denzel Washington, and who plays the role of Justice William Brennan in HBO’s Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, as Gloucester; Darrell Hammond, a former Saturday Night Live cast member, as Edgar; and Rich Sommer, Harry Crane on Mad Men, as the Fool.
“I look for actors who are immediate—real, in the moment—who have facilities with the language,” Benson said. “Shakespeare appeals to a lot of good actors. It scares some people, and a lot of good actors are afraid of it. A few would do anything to be in the room with a few other good actors and to listen to each other.”
Casting was the time-consuming part, Benson said, but the actors only rehearsed the day prior to the reading for four hours.
”It was sudden and it happened right away—it was just a big jump,” DeMunn said. “I liked that. I met great people; some old friends, some new.”
“You’re flying by the seat of your pants, and it’s exciting,” added John Rothman, known for his performance in Broadway’s Relatively Speaking and on TV in HBO’s Game Change.
For Zurkowski, the performance was a chance for him to take on a role that he always wanted to play.
“Edmund the Bastard was a role that I figured got away from me, because I should have played it when I was in my twenties or thirties,” Zurkowski said. “I’ve done just
about all the great roles…I always wanted to do Edmund.”
And for Wrenn Schmidt, cast as Cornelia, who previously had some on- and off-Broadway roles in addition to TV stints in Boardwalk Empire and Blue Bloods, to name
a few, performing Shakespeare was brand new but thrilling.
“It’s really exciting to read Shakespeare for the first time in front of a great group of people,” she said.
Over the years, Benson has found that Frog and Peach performances make a difference not only for the performers, but for audience members, as well. She recently
received a letter from an Advanced Placement Literature teacher at De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx thanking her for providing her students with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“We feel like we owe New York a debt, and we owe those kids a debt, too,” Benson said. “A lot of our audience is working families who have spent their whole lives in New
York City and never stepped into a theater.”
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