Frog & Peach is a theater company founded in 1997 by members of Actors Studio and has ever since been famous for bringing streamlined Shakespearean classics to audiences. The acclaimed company will perform “Twelfth Night” at The Sheen Center in NYC from February 25th through March 17th, 2019. Featuring a rock score by the award-winning band Honey West's Ted Zurkowski, "Twelfth Night" takes place in Illyria, a fictional kingdom by the sea, in this fun and entertaining romp of a comedy.

Artistic director Lynnea Benson recently discussed this play and her experiences working with Frog & Peach in an exclusive interview.

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Plays, performances, and Shakespeare

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get into the theater and how did you establish Frog & Peach Theater Company? Also, what inspired the great name?

Lynnea Benson (LB): My career began by getting the family pets to re-enact scenes from my favorite books and movies. A large, surly Siamese cat was especially memorable as Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre.” Thanks to some kind librarians, I found Shakespeare, Poe, Shirley Jackson, and Charles Dickens. And thanks to some wonderful teachers, I began finding ways to tell other kinds of stories, with somewhat more willing performers.

Scenes from Frog & Peach Theater Company's Twelfth Night. / Photo by Maria Baranova.
Scenes from Frog & Peach Theater Company's Twelfth Night. / Photo by Maria Baranova.

A scholarship to Barnard brought me to New York, completely alone and free, at age 17.

My husband, friend, Frog & Peach co-founder, and fellow Actors Studio member Ted Zurkowski and I both love the plays. We’d seen a lot of Shakespeare productions. Some were great. Others were less so: overlong, condescending, and seemingly hell-bent to make normal people hate Shakespeare. Meanwhile, budgets for arts in public schools—the very schools that save people like me--were being slashed and burned.

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We felt we owed it to Shakespeare, our beloved New York, and to young people to create a place where Shakespeare performance was fun and entertaining.

The name: our letters of incorporation were about to be finalized, but we hadn’t hit on a name that would convey this playful, subversive, slightly sinister entity we’d created. And I came across the NY Times obituary for the great Peter Cook. He and Dudley Moore did a very funny sketch about a restaurant with a limited menu.

Frog & Peach was born.

MM: Can you please tell me about why you decided to streamline Shakespeare's plays for Frog & Peach?

LB: At Frog & Peach, we focus on great acting and terrific story-telling. We do not cut that much; rather, we carefully craft the plays to keep the beauty of the verse and richness of the story, eliding repetitive, archaic, or confusing references that not even scholars understand. The cinematic pace of our productions is probably why most uninitiated folks use the term “streamlined.” It helps to understand a little theatre history.

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At the time they were written, plays were long for two reasons.

1) They were about the only widely accessible form of entertainment. Books were just for rich people, and of course, there were no films or television. Back in the Golden Age of Cinema, patrons would see cartoons, newsreels, coming attractions, AND a double feature. Shakespeare made money by giving his audience good value, and a full day of fun.

2) We sometimes forget that The Globe did not provide intermission.

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It was not a quiet, focused environment like we have in the modern theatre. People were coming and going all the time. They’d sometimes miss key plot information, which is why Shakespeare’s characters repeat details of the story so often. It’s the same reason televised football games are so long—instant replays.

MM: Why did you choose “Twelfth Night” for the February performance and what are your favorite things about the show?

LB: Our 2017 debut at the Sheen Center was “Macbeth.” It was terrifying, sexy, extremely violent and extremely funny in parts. Macbeth provided younger audiences with shocks and thrills they could not get from their cell phones. New audiences increased by more than 300%.

Interestingly, tucked inside of all the great feedback for “Macbeth,” there was a yearning for comedy, which made us all very excited because nobody does Shakespeare’s comedies quite like Frog & Peach. So, we were thrilled to present “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in FY18, which was even more successful than “Macbeth.” With its highly skilled, attractive cast, and a glorious score by Ted Zurkowski and Ian McDonald, long time audiences knew they were in for a treat. And new audiences couldn’t believe how much fun they had. Nearly 40% of Midsummer audiences were under 30 years of age.

Ever conscious of the current political climate, Frog & Peach is committed to celebrating decency and humanity. Twelfth Night is terribly funny and dangerously subversive, with gender-bending disguises, fiendish pranks, and considerable substance abuse. It does not respect authority. And like New York, Illyria is a place to reinvent yourself, to become your REAL self. Also, the music is hot.

MM: What are the biggest challenges of being a director of Shakespearean works?

LB: Directing Shakespeare is a lot more fun and a lot less stressful than certain modern authors. Whatever a musician’s skill, she’s always going to sound a lot better when she’s playing a Stradivarius.

Scenes, projects, and theatrical projects

MM: Do you have a favorite scene in “Twelfth Night” and, if so, which one and why?

LB: Oooh! That is tough. Today, I’d say it’s what we’re calling The Orgy Scene-Act II scene 3. Just so much fun, such great live music, great people I love to work with having a wonderful time and being quite naughty.

MM: How did you come to work with The Sheen Center?

LB: We toured several theaters in 2016, seeking a place to call home. A popular staple of the uptown theater scene, we knew we’d serve even more people in a destination neighborhood like the lower east side. A key part of the Frog & Peach mission is to reach New Yorkers who might feel shut out of the cultural conversation—less affluent, younger, maybe less confident than typical theater-goers--and that’s something we share with the terrific people at The Sheen Center.

MM: Who created the music for the show and what were the challenges of pairing the soundtrack with the on-stage actions?

LB: The original Twelfth Night score was composed by Frog & Peach co-founder (and wonderful actor) Ted Zurkowski. It rocks out (see Orgy Scene, above), yet is also dreamily traditional in parts. It kills me and delights me that Ted is so damn talented. He’s co-composer and frontman the popular band Honey West, with rock legend Ian McDonald of King Crimson and Foreigner. Honey West’s debut album Bad Old World was named one of 2017’s best albums by WFUV’s Darren DeVivo and Goldmine Magazine. Best of all, the “Twelfth Night” score is played live on stage by company members Martin Bodenheimer & David Garcia, (who play Peter & Charlie, Sailors turned Constables), and by Blake Kelton Prentiss (who plays Valentine).

MM: What do you hope the audience will like most about your rendition of “Twelfth Night” and do you have other theatrical projects coming up in 2019 that you would like to mention?

LB: I hope they leave feeling good about being humans! I hope they’ll be a little more patient with themselves, and with each other! I think Shakespeare especially loved our imperfections, and the people of Twelfth Night certainly have their share. It’s so hard to be a human these days. You’ve got all these voices--family, social media, religion— shouting at you: “You don’t feel that way! You feel this way!” Finding a way to live that uses all your skills, one that’s not a disguise, one that isn’t “what’s expected,” is tough. Like love, it requires honesty, acceptance and a lot of hard work. That’s the challenge of “Twelfth Night,” and of modern life too.

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“Twelfth Night” will be performed on Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM; and Sundays at 3 PM. Tickets cost between are $24.95 and 29.95 and can be purchased at The Sheen Center website.

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