Beauty scale

A golden-age New York armory is a haven for forward-thinkers

NEW YORK — The Park Avenue Armory, former headquarters of the National Guard’s silk stockings regiment and a remnant of the Gilded Age, could easily have fallen short of its repurposed ambitions. The vastness of the iconic space, a 55,000 square foot exercise room on Park Avenue with a ceiling that soars 85 feet high, was not up to the demands of a 21st century art world which strives to meet increasingly intimate audiences.

But 15 years after opening its doors, the Armory — occupying a block between East 66th and 67th Streets — has not only defied expectations, but exceeded them as a new stronghold for battalions of creative minds. The myriad of artists who have taken up the physical challenge of space, choreographers (Bill T. Jones), directors (Sam Mendes), multidisciplinary artists (Taryn Simon and Carrie Mae Weems), have succeeded in the most dearly won: planting a vital new flag in New York’s teeming arts landscape.

Coming out of the pandemic shutdown, the Armory achieved another feat. A play he presented to American theatergoers in 2019 – Stefano Massini and Ben Power’s epic “The Lehman Trilogy” – opened on Broadway last fall and won five Tony Awards at the ceremony of last month, including the trophy for the best play.

“The Lehman Trilogy” expands your idea of ​​what three actors on a stage can conjure up

“It’s really a beautiful story, a fairy tale,” said Pierre Audi, artistic director of the Armory since 2015, about the evolution of the place, which he describes as unique. “The Lehman Trilogy” had to be reconfigured for its much smaller Broadway confines.

Audi explained that he fell in love with filling a room “where this kind of large-scale theatrical experience is possible – a visionary experience where there is a lot more freedom for set design, more freedom to create a special relationship with the audience, with the sound, with the technology.”

This exploration led the Armory to tinker with scale in exhilarating ways, forcing viewers to reflect on how the live performance envelops us in an environment that completely envelops this. The lineup includes both original and well-known material, with this summer’s agenda leaning heavily on the classic: a repertoire of Aeschylus’ “Hamlet” and “Oresteia” until August 13. Both are directed by Cambridge graduate Robert Icke. who has held senior positions in such notable London companies as Headlong and Almeida Theatre, the latter founded in 1979 by Audi.

Icke’s “Hamlet” features a Denmark in 2022 in which surveillance cameras record the ghostly intrusion of Hamlet’s father (David Rintoul) and a wayward Hamlet (Alex Lawther) languishes so shyly and introspectively that it really seems wanting to disappear – for its too solid flesh will melt. The production opened to mixed reviews earlier this month. But I came to realize that there is no such thing as an ideal “Hamlet”, so maybe I was more willing to let Icke (pronounced “Ike”) take me on a dazzling, sometimes unequal but always interesting with the piece. The most theatrical moments of this “Hamlet”—the play within a room, the climactic duel, an ethereal epilogue to Icke’s conception—underscore the benefits of viewing the canonical work in monumental settings.

“I kind of felt like I was getting too comfortable with the small canvas and at some point I was going to have to try and make this work on a bigger and bigger canvas,” Icke said in a Zoom interview from The Armory, where his “Oresteia” has its grand opening later this month. (He directed versions of both plays in Britain before the pandemic.) “At the end of my time at the [325-seat] Almeida, it started to feel a little exclusive to me, in a way that I didn’t really like.

The Armory, with an annual budget of around $28 million, hosted productions in the Drill Hall for as few as 100 patrons for a superb socially distanced dance piece last year by Jones, “Afterwardsness,” and for no less than 1,800 for the Berlin Philharmonic. In addition to six major events each year, the organization holds lecture series, recitals and art installations in smaller quarters inside and outside the main hall, and has a commission for artists of various genres.

“It’s kind of in a category by itself,” said Weems, whose “The Shape of Things,” a multimedia survey of the circus dimension of American political life, premiered at the Armory in December. “They were really great throughout. They just gave me the opportunity to explore, to work, to question, to doubt, to change, to make course corrections when I needed it. The level of patience and level of care was truly remarkable.

Rebecca Robertson, Founding President and Executive Producer of The Armory, had experience in the business of site-specific theatre, some of it produced indoors in “found” spaces, other times outdoors. air. “There’s something special about being in a non-theatrical environment to create work,” she said via Zoom. “I remember the first time I went to see the drill hall. I just watched this and I was like, ‘Oh my God. No rain dates!’ ”

The Armory has been a protean play space, an inspiring combination of coliseum, sound stage and great chamber. In 2014, Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford transformed the Drill Hall into a Scottish plain, staging “Macbeth” on a muddy battlefield between two 550-seat stands that I dubbed “Game of Thanes”. In 2018, playwright-director Simon Stephens fascinatingly updated Federico García Lorca’s 1934 ‘Yerma’ – the tragic story of a woman who could not conceive – by placing the action in a glass box who made her world feel like a stuffy terrarium.

Such visually compelling adaptations happen again and again at the Armory, which has learned over time what works and what doesn’t. A summer 2011 residency by the Royal Shakespeare Company on an overly labyrinthine structure yielded only lackluster stagings of audience delights such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “As You Like It”. But a gripping 2017 montage of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape,” directed by Richard Jones and starring Bobby Cannavale, was a pivotal moment for the Drill Hall. Scenes unfolded on a treadmill, with actors swinging through the claustrophobic bowels of a ship. They froze in position intermittently, like distorted statuary, courtesy of choreographer Aletta Collins.

‘The Hairy Ape’ with Bobby Cannavale is a vision

The effect was a dreamlike evocation of the early 20th century, in a cavernous space with period architectural finishes. “It’s like a big European train station,” Weems said of the Drill Hall. “The beautiful trusses and the beautiful walkways, the raised platforms that allow you to look down into space. The place itself, the architecture, has an incredible history.

When an artist knows how to work on such a large scale, Audi said, what happens in the drill hall expresses something ineffable and deeply emotional. “It’s a dialogue with space,” he said of the work. “And it’s kind of magical. It’s very difficult to describe, but it’s very, very touching.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Icke. Sets and costumes, Hildegard Bechtler; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, Tom Gibbons; video, Tal Yarden; music, Laura Marling. With Ross Waiton, Joshua Higgott, Michael Abubakar, Gilbert Kyem Jr., Calum Finlay, Tia Bannon, Marty Cruickshank. About 3 hours 40 minutes. “Hamlet” performs in repertoire with “Oresteia” through August 13 at Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave., New York. 212-933-5812.