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A New York armory from the Gilded Age is a haven for the cutting edge

Now featuring a surveillance-state ‘Hamlet,’ the Park Avenue Armory is a magnet for the arts on a grand scale

Alex Lawther as Hamlet in director Robert Icke's production of “Hamlet” at the Park Avenue Armory on Manhattan's Upper East Side. (Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory)

NEW YORK — The Park Avenue Armory, onetime home of the National Guard’s Silk Stocking Regiment and relic of the Gilded Age, could easily have fallen short of its repurposed ambitions. The immensity of the landmarked space, a 55,000-square-foot drill hall on Park Avenue with a ceiling that soars 85 feet high, did not conform to the demands of a 21st century arts world striving to meet audiences on ever more intimate terms.

But 15 years after it opened its doors, the Armory — occupying a city block between East 66th and 67th streets — has not only defied expectations, it has exceeded them as a new fortress for battalions of creative minds. The myriad artists who’ve accepted the space’s physical challenge, choreographers (Bill T. Jones), directors (Sam Mendes), multidisciplinary artists (Taryn Simon and Carrie Mae Weems), have succeeded in that most hard-won of missions: planting a vital new flag in New York City’s teeming landscape of the arts.

Emerging from the pandemic shutdown, the Armory has chalked up another achievement. A play that it introduced to American theatergoers in 2019 — Stefano Massini and Ben Power’s epic “The Lehman Trilogy” — opened on Broadway last fall, and wound up collecting five Tony Awards at last month’s ceremony, including the trophy for best play.

'The Lehman Trilogy' expands your notion of what three actors on a stage can conjure

“It’s really a wonderful story, a fairy tale,” Pierre Audi, the Armory’s artistic director since 2015, said of the evolution of the venue, which he contends is singular. “The Lehman Trilogy” had to be reconfigured for its far smaller Broadway confines.

Audi explained that he became enamored with filling a hall “where this kind of large-scale theater experience is possible — a visionary experience where there’s much more freedom for scenography, more freedom for creating a special relationship with the audience, with sound, with technology.”

That exploration has led the Armory to tinker with scale in exhilarating ways, compelling theatergoers to think freshly about how live performance envelops us in an environment that utterly envelops it. The programming encompasses both original and well-known material, with this summer’s agenda leaning heavily on the classical: a repertory of “Hamlet” and Aeschylus’s “Oresteia” that runs until Aug. 13. Both are directed by Robert Icke, a graduate of Cambridge who has worked in leadership roles at such outstanding London companies as Headlong and Almeida Theatre, the latter founded in 1979 by Audi.

Icke’s “Hamlet” offers up a Denmark in 2022 in which surveillance cameras record the intrusion of the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father (David Rintoul) and a skittish Hamlet (Alex Lawther) languishes so shyly and introspectively he really does seem to want to disappear — to will his too solid flesh to melt. The production opened to mixed reviews earlier this month. But I’ve come to realize that no ideal “Hamlet” exists, so I was maybe more willing to let Icke (pronounced “Ike”) take me on an eye-filling, sometimes uneven but always interesting tussle with the play. This “Hamlet’s” most theatrical moments — the play within a play, the climactic duel, an ethereal epilogue of Icke’s devising — underline the advantages of seeing canonical work in monumental settings.

“I was feeling a little bit like I was getting too comfortable with the small canvas and that 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 official opening later this month. (He directed versions of both plays in Britain before the pandemic.) “By the end of my time at the [325-seat] Almeida, it started to feel slightly exclusive, in a way that I didn’t really like.”

The Armory, with an annual budget of about $28 million, has housed productions in the Drill Hall for as few as 100 patrons for a stunning, socially distanced dance piece last year by Jones, “Afterwardsness,” and for as many as 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 in and off the main hall, and has a commissioning arm for artists in a variety of genres.

“It’s kind of in a league of its own,” said Weems, whose “The Shape of Things,” a multimedia investigation of the circuslike dimension of American political life, premiered at the Armory in December. “They were just really terrific all the way through. They just gave me the room to explore, to work, to question, to doubt, to change, to make course corrections when I needed to do that. The level of patience and the level of care was really quite remarkable.”

Rebecca Robertson, the Armory’s founding president and executive producer, had experience in the site-specific theater sector, some of it produced indoors in “found” spaces, at other times done in the open air. “There’s something special about being in a nontheatrical environment to create work,” she said via Zoom. “I remember the first time I went to see the Drill Hall. I just looked at this and I thought: ‘Oh my God. No rain dates!’ ”

The Armory has been a protean play space, some inspiring combination of coliseum, soundstage and great chamber. In 2014, Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford turned the Drill Hall into a Scottish plain, staging “Macbeth” on a muddy battlefield set between two 550-seat grandstands that I dubbed “Game of Thanes.” In 2018, playwright-director Simon Stephens mesmerizingly updated Federico García Lorca’s 1934 “Yerma” — the tragic tale of a woman who couldn’t conceive — by placing the action in a glass box that made it seem as if her world was a stifling 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 crowd pleasers such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “As You Like It.” But a captivating mounting in 2017 of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape,” directed by Richard Jones and starring Bobby Cannavale, amounted to a pinnacle moment for the Drill Hall. Scenes unfolded on a conveyor belt, with actors swaying in the claustrophobic bowels of a ship. They froze in position intermittently, like contorted statuary, courtesy of choreographer Aletta Collins.

'The Hairy Ape' with Bobby Cannavale is a vision

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

When an artist knows how to work on such a big scale, Audi said, what happens in the Drill Hall expresses something ineffable and deeply emotional. “It’s a dialogue with the space,” he said of the work. “And that’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” runs in repertory with “Oresteia” through Aug. 13 at Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave., New York. 212-933-5812.