America’s Greatest Shakespearean Returns to Milwaukee
'This Prison Where I Live,' the third play in Angela Iannone's Edwin Booth Cycle, makes its Midwest Premiere with Theater RED
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Front (Left to Right) Marcee Doherty-Elst as Mary McVicker, Jared McDaris as Edwin Booth, Andrea Burkholder as Mary Devlin; Back (Left to Right) Cory Jefferson Hagen as John Wilkes Booth, Brandon Haut as Mark Grey. Photo by Traveling Lemur Productions.
In today’s age, when people hear the last name Booth, they typically think of John Wilkes, the notorious assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.
But this wasn’t the case in the 19th century, as the Booth theatrical family dominated American stages.
The patriarch, Junius Brutus Booth, traveled from England to America in 1821 with his mistress, Mary Ann Holmes, and had 10 children. Three of his sons, Junius Brutus Jr., Edwin and John Wilkes, also went on to become stage performers.
Edwin, known for pioneering naturalistic acting, ultimately found the most success. During his time, it was common for Edwin Booth fans to travel hundreds of miles to see him perform in a Shakespearean production.
Local artist Angela Iannone is on a mission to pull Edwin out of the shadow of his notorious brother, and stop people from thinking of him as the “other Booth.” Her Edwin Booth cycle is comprised of four plays that center on the personal life and career of a man often referred to as “America’s Greatest Shakespearean.”
“Edwin Booth is so magnetic,” Iannone explains. “Every time one of these scripts has been produced people light up, they are like ‘I had no idea, I want to know more.’”
Jared McDaris as Edwin Booth, Brandon Haut as Mark Grey, Cory Jefferson Hagen as John Wilkes Booth. Photo by Traveling Lemur Productions.
The third play in the cycle, This Prison Where I live, is receiving its Midwest premiere thanks to Theater RED, who previously staged Iannone’s second Edwin Booth play, The Seeds of Banquo, in 2015.
Iannone is also directing the production.
In This Prison Where I Live, the ghosts of Edwin’s younger brother John Wilkes (Cory Jefferson Hagen) and his first wife Mary Devlin (Andrea Burkholder) come back to haunt him, interrupting his rehearsals for Richard II. The return of his beloved first wife puts a strain on his relationship with his current wife Mary McVicker Booth (Marcee Doherty-Elst), who is descending into madness after the loss of their child.
To ensure that the intimate moments between Edwin and both of his wives are crafted in a safe and emotional way, Christopher Elst, Doherty-Elst’s husband and co-producing director of Theater RED, serves as intimacy designer for the show. Elst is a certified teacher with the Society of American Fight Directors and is currently training with Intimacy Directors International.
“The time to work without an intimacy designer is over,” Iannone explains. “It’s not ok for someone to say ‘just do it.’ That’s happened to me a million times in my career, where someone has said ‘just really kiss or just really slap him.’ The time for it to feel like it’s your fault if something feels weird or uncomfortable to you is so over.”
Jared McDaris, a Chicago based actor and playwright, will be playing the iconic role of Edwin Booth. McDaris is a Theater RED alum, with his play A Thousand Times Goodnight receiving its world premiere with the company in 2013, while another one of his productions, The Wayward Women, got its Milwaukee premiere with Theater RED in 2017.
“(Theater RED) are enormous champions of local playwrights and premiering new work,” Iannone notes. “They’ve done it for me and they’ve done it for Jared. People like to have a brand new experience and an opportunity to discuss it.”
Several members of The Seeds of Banquo creative team are returning for another journey with Edwin Booth, including costume designer Leah Dueno, lighting designer Alan Piotrowicz, and performer Cory Jefferson Hagen.
Although McDaris wasn’t part of The Seeds of Banquo, when him and Iannone met after one of the show’s productions, Iannone was struck by McDaris’ similarities to the 19th century Shakespearean performer, from his rich, deep voice, to his curly hair and shorter height.
“The seed was planted all the way back in 2015 to say if we have the opportunity, it would be great to have Jared come up to Milwaukee and play Edwin Booth,” Doherty-Elst says.
“The hand of fate was on it,” Iannone adds.
Jared McDaris as Edwin Booth. Photo by Traveling Lemur Productions.
McDaris shares that he enjoys playing historical characters, and that this experience has been particularly gratifying with one of the leading experts on Edwin Booth, Iannone, in the same room as him. Iannone recently spent time at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, on a fellowship grant and previously gained access to Edwin’s correspondence and promptbooks at the Hampden-Booth Theatre Library. She is committed to making her plays as historically accurate as possible, pulling direct quotes from Edwin’s letters and recreating exact stage directions from his prompt books.
“Playing a celebrity is a great escape for any stage actor,” McDaris says. “So much of this play for me centers around Edwin’s relationship with his brother, and Edwin’s attitude in the play fluctuates a lot depending on who he is interacting with. The energy the audience gives will help support and reinvigorate those moments.”
Iannone is already hard at work at the fifth and sixth plays in the Edwin Booth cycle, with the sixth play being written specifically for Theater RED.
“We are very attached, intrigued, very much in love with the Edwin Booth series at Theater RED,” Doherty-Elst says. “We are looking forward to the continued collaboration with Angela on these.”
This Prison Where I Live, presented by Theater RED, runs Aug. 24 – Sept. 9 at Tenth Street Theater, 628 N 10th St. For tickets visit theaterred.com.