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When Jay Michaels took over Kingsborough Community College’s performing arts program, it was on the verge of extinction. In fact the Manhattan Beach two-year college had not put on a Shakespearean production in more than a decade.

Since January, the Drama Club at the City University of New York (CUNY) college has mounted two major plays - Joseph Kesselring’s "Arsenic and Old Lace" in May and Shakespeare’s romance "The Tempest," in July. Michaels says this is only the beginning.

"My wife [Mary Elizabeth MiCari, who now works in the hair and wig department for Broadway’s ’Wonderful Town,’] went here 20 years ago, and she regaled me with how elaborate the department and the plays were," Michaels told GO Brooklyn. "I won’t stop until [the current department] is the same, if not better."

In these austere times, Michaels succeeded in producing "The Tempest" and "Arsenic and Old Lace" by stretching his budget and calling on longtime theater friends. He made a set for "Arsenic and Old Lace" with "old wood that was lying around the theater."

The one thing he doesn’t have to worry about is Kingsborough’s facilities. The college has two performance spaces - a 700-seat theater in the Leon Goldstein Performing Arts Center and a 300-seat theater in the Marine Academic Center.

"The facilities are absolutely marvelous and, until now, totally ignored," he said.

Michaels attributes the decline of performing arts at Kingsborough mostly to money ("The arts were suffering everywhere through budget cuts, and here was no exception") but also to a lack of commitment.

"No one wanted to take the time," he said.

Finally, Sheldon Aptekar, director of the performing arts department and also a director of Manhattan’s Genesis Repertory, which Michaels founded with his wife, asked Michaels to revive the moribund program.

Technically, Michaels’ titles are Professor of Speech and Theatre and faculty advisor to the Drama Club. But he believes his major role is to provide the energy and expertise to make Kingsborough an important performing arts center for its Manhattan Beach community and beyond, and he hopes to eventually produce a Shakespearean or classical drama, a contemporary play, a comedy and a musical every year.

Michaels said the drama club would present a group of topical one-acts as part of a new play series called "Bare Stages" this October. They will be premiered off-Broadway as part of Spotlight-On Productions’ Halloween festival, Oct. 4-31, at the Greenwich Street Theatre. (For more information, log on to www.spotlighton.org.)

"When I went to Queens College [in the 1980s] we did a production of ’Hamlet’ that went to the old Lion Theatre on Theatre Row," he recalled with more than a touch of pride.

Michaels’ specialty is what he calls "Shakespeare redefined." In 2001, he won the Off-Off-Broadway Review award for producing a "Julius Caesar" that he calls "my ’Sopranos.’"

"Caesar was rubbed out with pistols," he said. "I’ve won awards for taking Shakespeare, keeping the original text and setting the play in other surroundings and other time periods."

"The Tempest" is a case in point.

"The premise of the old sci-fi film ’Forbidden Planet’ [made by Fred McLeod in 1956] is ’The Tempest,’" said Michaels. "So we’ve gone all the way and set ’The Tempest’ in the forbidden planet. It’s a combination theater of the absurd and Cold War 1950s sci-fi."

In fact, the production, which ran from July 21-24 in the Leon Goldstein Center, made quite effective use of old footage from "Flash Gordon" film serials, the "Star Wars" theme song and costumes that looked like they came from a Hollywood wardrobe.

Michaels says that Kingsborough is "the cream of New York City’s community colleges."

"This is a great place for [the students] to see if they want to be in the arts, and hopefully many of them do," he said. Michaels even placed two students in apprenticeships - at Cami Hall (a concert hall in Midtown Manhattan) and with the Cypreco of America theater company.

As he juggles his work at Genesis with his work at Kingsborough, Michaels hopes to make this college’s drama program equal to that of a four-year school.

"But whatever the outcome," said Michaels. "I’m so proud that we’ve put Shakespeare back on the stage here for the first time in over 10 years."

 

Leon Goldstein Performing Arts Center and Marine Academic Center are located at Kingsborough Community College, 2001 Oriental Blvd. in Manhattan Beach. For more information about Kingsborough Community College’s theatrical productions, call (646) 226-0370.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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