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Red Bull Theater celebrated 20 years of being New York's Off-Broadway home for the rarely produced plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries with a month-long festival of work. We offered a thrilling combination of classics, and new works in conversation with those classics, featuring some of the most remarkable talent in the world. 

Red Bull Theater: A Twentieth Anniversary History

           In the spring of 2024, Red Bull Theater celebrated its 20th anniversary with a month-long festival that ranged across centuries and spoke in a multitude of voices. Shakespeare rubbed shoulders with Aphra Behn and Euripides in readings and workshops of The Tempest, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, The Rover, and Medea. Jacob Ming-Trent’s one-man show explained in verse and song How Shakespeare Saved My Life. New plays imagined how King Lear came to be written and how Aphra Behn juggled spying, playwriting, and a very complicated love life. The festival presented the kind of eclectic mix Red Bull’s devoted audiences have come to expect from this scrappy, innovative company.

           Classical theater interpreted with a contemporary edge and new work in conversation with the classics have been Red Bull trademarks ever since artistic director Jesse Berger founded the company with a critically lauded production of Pericles in 2003. Named for a playhouse that illegally performed plays in 17th-century England during the years of Puritan rule, Red Bull in its early productions focused on its core mission: to bring Jacobean drama onto the 21st-century stage. The second production, The Revenger’s Tragedy, a gleefully macabre social satire streaked with black comedy, gave notice that Red Bull fearlessly embraced unabashed theatricality. “The audience is guffawing at the same time that it’s saying ‘Eeew!’” The New York Times exclaimed, commenting on the gory massacre that closed the play. The Times review also praised Berger’s direction and the dynamic performances of Matthew Rauch and Michael Urie, who both make frequent appearances in Red Bull productions and are staunch offstage supporters. 

           Red Bull continued to spotlight the Jacobeans in early productions of Women Beware Women, The Duchess of Malfi, and The Witch of Edmonton. But Berger, who directed each of them, always intended the company to do more. The Obie Award-winning Revelation Readings, a series of one-night performances launched shortly after Pericles premiered, mingled the Jacobeans with other classics of world drama, from Molière and Racine to Strindberg, Schiller, and Gogol, as well as an array of modern plays that offered new takes on classical subjects or used heightened language to grapple with contemporary subjects—or both. 

           Berger brought that spirit to Red Bull’s first fully staged non-Jacobean production in 2012 with Jean Genet’s The Maids, a blistering performance deemed “revelatory” by The New Yorker. Subsequent productions of Joe Orton’s antic satire, Loot, and Charles Ludlam’s loving spoof of Victorian melodrama, The Mystery of Irma Vep, made it clear that Red Bull’s definition of “a classic” was expansive and inclusive. The Short New Play Festival was established in 2011 to support contemporary playwrights who shared that vision; Jeremy O. Harris, Theresa Rebeck, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Larissa FastHorse are among those who have contributed new works to the festival on themes ranging from “Revolution” to “Private Lives.” Other ongoing programs include Shakespeare in the Schools, which offers students hands-on experience to supplement classroom lessons, and intensive classes on classical theater acting taught by such longtime Red Bull associates as Miriam Silverman, Daniel Sullivan, and John Douglas Thompson.

           Over the course of the 2010s, Red Bull consolidated its stature as one of Off-Broadway’s preeminent theaters. The New York Times hailed it as “a dynamic producer of classic plays.” Time Out went further and dubbed Red Bull “the most exciting classical theater in New York.” Productions of Coriolanus, The Changeling, and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore affirmed the company’s commitment to Shakespeare and the Jacobeans, but its theatrical horizons were expanding. Berger invited other directors to contribute their distinctive voices to the Red Bull repertoire. Marc Vietor directed a sparkling production of The School for Scandal, and Erica Schmidt directed Mac Beth, an all-female version that was later picked up by the Hunter Theatre Project. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s freewheeling adaptation of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, directed by Berger, was such a hit that it moved to a larger theater to run for an additional six weeks. 

           Red Bull by now enjoyed longtime relationships with dedicated actors eager to explore roles and plays they would never have the chance to do in the commercial theater. Arnie Burton, Kelley Curran, Jennifer Ikeda, Dana Ivey, Ismenia Mendes, Jacob Ming-Trent, Patrick Page, Laila Robins, Jeanine Serralles, Derek Smith, and Charlayne Woodard are just a few of the many gifted artists Red Bull’s growing audience became accustomed to seeing, not just in full-scale productions, but in Revelation Readings they rehearse and perform in a single grueling, exhilarating day. An equally dedicated group of theater scholars from colleges and universities across the country contributed their expertise to the program notes and post-reading talkbacks that gave Red Bull performances an intellectual depth to match their dramatic flair. 

           When the pandemic shut down the theaters in March 2020, Red Bull responded with characteristic inventiveness. The first live streamed Revelation Reading appeared a scant five weeks later; ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore was followed by three more online readings and a livestream of the 10th annual Short New Play Festival in July. A series of “RemarkaBULL Podversations,” in-depth discussions about classical texts between associate artistic director Nathan Winkelstein and actors ranging from Elizbeth Marvel to André De Shields, gave the Red Bull community a much-needed sense of connection during a time of isolation. The 2020-21 all-online season presented a dozen readings of increasing technical and visual sophistication, and a Short New Play Festival aptly dedicated to the theme, “Restoration.” Red Bull’s committed audience supported its foray into “Zoom theater,” and Red Bull discovered new audiences outside New York City pleased to have access to plays that no other company produced on a regular basis. Since the theaters reopened in the fall of 2021, Red Bull has continued to serve that audience with live streamed access to many of its Revelation Readings.

           The 2021-22 season was necessarily abbreviated while everyone adjusted to the new normal, and the readings remained mostly online, but Red Bull provided welcome laughs with a rollicking live production of The Alchemist. Back in full swing for 2022-23, the Revelation Readings included classics from Phèdre to Don Quixote and bold contemporary plays such as Luis Quintero’s hip-hop Medea: Re-Versed and David Grimm’s Kit Marlowe, performed by an all-female and non-binary cast. Two fully staged productions revived Elizabethan plays virtually never seen on the modern stage: Arden of Faversham, a dark, erotic true-crime tale, and The Knight of the Burning Pestle, a rowdy comedy that both satirized and celebrated the joys of live theater. Revitalizing rarely performed classics for today’s audiences and finding new voices to bring contemporary sensibilities to bear on classic themes, these recent seasons maintain the mission that has sustained Red Bull Theater for two enthralling decades. 

           With a hip-hop version of Medea scheduled for the fall of 2024 and possibilities for later productions that include Titus Andronicus, The Tempest, and The Imaginary Invalid, Red Bull is busy eyeing the future and planting seeds for the next 20 years.


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