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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

New York is one of the world's great theater cities. No one would argue with that, but it's not every day that some of the world's greatest actors and directors pay a visit to perform some of the world's greatest plays.

Jeff Lunden has this report.

JEFF LUNDEN: Joe Melillo, the Brooklyn Academy of Music's executive producer, says theatergoers are hungry for a diet of Ibsen, Gogol and Shakespeare. Ticket sales for BAM's classical theater season have been brisk.

Mr. JOE MELILLO (Executive Producer, Brooklyn Academy of Music): They're flying. They have, like, little wings. The tickets are flying out in the box office.

LUNDEN: And even if these plays are over 100 or 400 years old, the artists who are presenting them say they resonate for contemporary audiences. Take "John Gabriel Borkman," Henrik Ibsen's 1896 drama, which is currently playing at BAM. The title character, a banker, has been imprisoned for illegally investing his client's money. Think Bernie Madoff.

Actress Fiona Shaw plays Borkman's wife.

Ms. FIONA SHAW (Actor): You see the byproduct of these legal battles, that the families fall apart because financial difficulties or financial shame produces a terrible fallout in families.

LUNDEN: On an even more universal level, Ibsen's three characters are imprisoned by their own delusions and bitterness, says Alan Rickman, who plays Borkman, and Lindsay Duncan, who plays the woman he abandoned.

Mr. ALAN RICKMAN (Actor): They're locked in the past, aren't they? And they've all got different views of the past and, frankly, that's something I recognize...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKMAN: ...from...

Ms. LINDSAY DUNCAN (Actor): Life.

Mr. RICKMAN: ...life and families.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNCAN: They're just very exaggerated versions of people we all know.

Mr. RICKMAN: We all know them. We've all grown up with these people.

LUNDEN: In Ibsen's third act, the three characters, who have not seen each other for years, confront one another.

(Soundbite of play, "John Gabriel Borkman")

Ms. SHAW: (as Gunhild Borkman) What is this? What does he want done here with me?

Ms. DUNCAN: (as Ella Rentheim) He wants to reach some agreement with you, Gunhild.

Ms. SHAW: (as Gunhild Borkman) He never wanted to before.

Ms. DUNCAN: (as Ella Rentheim) Tonight, he does.

Ms. SHAW: (as Gunhild Borkman) The last time we faced each other, it was in court. I was summoned to testify.

Mr. RICKMAN: (as John Gabriel Borkman) Tonight, I want to testify.

LUNDEN: Delusional characters are at the heart of BAM's next presentation, as well. It's an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's short story "The Diary of a Madman," starring Academy and Tony Award-winner Geoffrey Rush. Rush says even though Gogol wrote it about a mid-level bureaucrat in 1835 Russia, it feels like modern absurdist writing.

Mr. GEOFFREY RUSH (Actor): Gogol walks this very knife-edge, fine line between a very sharp observation of someone's descent into madness and, at the same time, playing fairly deliciously with their own sense of delusion.

LUNDEN: And Rush says, as he was discovering his character...

Mr. RUSH: I kept saying this is a Daffy Duck moment, where, you know, his beak has suddenly been smashed around to the back of his face. And we took a lot of inspiration from Chuck Jones, because he made that great quote at one point where he said: Bugs Bunny is the person we would probably all like to be. Daffy Duck is the person we probably really are. So it's a comment on that level of self-delusion of what our aspirations might be and how short they might fall.

(Soundbite of play, "The Diary of a Madman")

Mr. RUSH: (as Poprishchin) Why don't you take a good look in the mirror? He's got a head like one of those bottles you see in chemists'.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSH: (as Poprishchin) What does he know of love? Oh, I know where this comes from. Beware, my lord, of jealousy. Pushkin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSH: (as Poprishchin) Someone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSH: (as Poprishchin) It's the green-eyed something or other. Oh, yes. No doubt you've noticed the thousand and one little preferences and benevolences he has bestowed on me, not a ruble to my name as if Jesus had not a shirt, and you can go to hell.

LUNDEN: If Geoffrey Rush's character descends into madness, the same is true of Shakespeare's "King Lear," which Derek Jacobi is bringing over from England. Michael Grandage has directed the production and says Jacobi told him...

Mr. MICHAEL GRANDAGE (Director, "King Lear"): Classical actors certainly go through hoops, and the first of them is the Hamlet hoop. And the last one usually is the Lear hoop. And if you pass, he says, the Hamlet test early on, then people say that you're allowed to play your Lear when you get to the right age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: And at age 72, Jacobi has reached the right age.

Grandage says while the play has large political dimensions, Shakespeare has tapped into something more primal.

Mr. GRANDAGE: The center of the play is a great domestic drama, and he clearly was a man who was writing with a huge degree of knowledge about the nature of an aging parent.

(Soundbite of play, "King Lear")

Mr. DEREK JACOBI (Actor): (as King Lear) Monster ingratitude.

Unidentified Man #2: (as Fool) If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I'd have thee beaten for being old before thy time.

Mr. JACOBI: (as King Lear) How's that?

Unidentified Man #2: (as Fool) Thou should'st not have been old till thou had'st been wise.

Mr. JACOBI: (as King Lear) Oh, let me not be mad, not mad. Sweet heaven, keep me in temper: I would not be mad.

Mr. GRANDAGE: We have different words for it now. Of course, in Shakespeare's time it was called madness, and it's called madness throughout the play. But for madness, now we have dementia. We have a whole load of actual labels and labels where a modern audience - through the sad misfortune of their own families and their own aging parents or their own aging relations - have access to people who start to lose their mind, in some way.

(Soundbite of play, "King Lear")

Mr. JACOBI: (as King Lear) Where have I been? Where am I? Fair daylight? I am mightily abused and know not what to say. I will not swear these are my hands. I am a very foolish, fond old man. And to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Me thinks I should know you and know this man; yet I am doubtful for I am mainly ignorant what place this is. And all the skill I have remembers not these garments, nor I know not where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me. For, as I am a man, I think this lady to be my child.

LUNDEN: Not all of BAM's classical theater season deals with madness and delusion. A production of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" is coming, as well.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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