We know that long before Shakespeare’s day, the British were using the initials L, S and D for pounds, shillings and pence. But was the OTHER kind of LSD around in 16th century London?
The Bard’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM suggests it very well may have been. This is Shakespeare’s most off-the-wall play, one that at the very least makes us wonder “What was he smoking?”
A fairy makes an unwanted woman suddenly desirable to two men? A weaver rehearsing a play grows a donkey’s head and a queen falls in love with him? Shakespeare also painted himself into a corner in trying to make one mismatched couple stay together by what really amounts to early Renaissance hypnosis.
Well, it’s fun, anyway, which is one reason why New York Classical Theatre has opened its 2016 season with the 410-year-old hit. You can see it this week at Carl Schurz Park at East 86th St. at East End Avenue.
Yes, it’s al fresco, which reminds us that the course of outdoor theater never does run smooth. Your eyes will at times fight the setting sun and make you wish for a total eclipse. At a recent performance at Nelson A.Rockefeller Park, so many hands were raised to foreheads that you’d think an American flag were passing by.
Pigeons are even less welcome, but Ian Gould, playing the overeager Bottom, shooed them away with a grandiose flourish before they had a chance to upstage his soliloquy.
Not everyone heard it. Airplanes, helicopters and ad hoc basketball games all compete with the Elizabethan language. Alas, the actors are all unmiked, making them often hard to hear – especially when one or more have their backs turned away from us. At times, this MIDSUMMER almost seems to be a pantomime or the on – set filming of a silent movie.
Under these circumstances, even those who know the play would be well-advised to read a summary beforehand. That goes double for MIDSUMMER virgins. Director Sean Hagerty has put a semi-synopsis in the program that only takes you to Act Two, Scene One.
The enthusiastic actors – all of them quite fine in their roles – do their level best to compensate against the elements. So Nick Salamone’s Egeus – the father who’s unhappy with his daughter’s choice of beau – is much angrier than usual in order to let the audience know what’s going on. When Lauriel Friedman plays Helena’s neediness by crying out “Demetrius!” she has the same power and passion that Stanley Kowalski does when he moans “Stelllllllahhhh!”
Well, outdoor theater is great training for young actors who need to perfect the art of projection. Here’s hoping that in the future that they’ll be giving Tony award acceptance speeches in which they thank New York Classical Theatre for teaching them to project. But for now, throat-spray manufacturers are going to be mighty happy with the increased sales.
The actors occasionally make you part of the action – not in that obnoxious audience-participation way, but simply by quickly asking you for approval or guidance. This often happens when the show is on the move – which it literally is. For Hagerty has decided to use not just one section of the park, but many.
As a result, every 20 minutes or so, you’ll be asked to pick up your chair, blanket or just yourself and move a few feet to another part of the forest. It’s fun – for a while, but, my, does the novelty eventually wear off. More than once a seated patron was seen to sigh as he collected his belongings with a “You mean I gotta get up again?” demeanor.
What’s more, where you decide to park yourself may not be the ideal spot. At least one attendee was told, “Excuse me, but now you’re on stage. Would you mind moving over there?”
And a real, honest-to-God stage is what these actors deserve. The most praise anyone can ever give the performers playing Theseus and Hippolyta is that they don’t remotely resemble Oberon and Titania when they double in those roles. That compliment is gladly and easily given to Clay Storseth and Amy Hutchins.
Daniel Patrick Smith’s Demetrius is less geeky than you’ll find in many productions. Matt Mundy’s Puck could just as easily be called Puppy, given the way he rubs against and slobbers over Oberon. Kevin Shewey’s Lysander has a most natural delivery and seems to be speaking contemporary English, which is what you always want from a Shakespearean production.
Actors are always saying that Shakespeare is inherently musical. If so, PYRAMUS AND THISBE is MIDSUMMER’S eleven o’clock number. Ian Gould’s Pyramus got his laughs during his overwrought death scene. Montgomery Sutton’s Thisbe has the biggest bust since Passionella took stage at the Shubert in THE APPLE TREE. The two breasts eventually had their own version of a punch line and got titanic bursts of laughter from the audience.
Some of that came from tots and tweens. If this was their introduction to live theater, good. Parents would be wise to bring their theatrical newbies to the park and at least start seeing the show, for if the kids get bored or too flummoxed by the language, they can leave and literally nothing is lost – for all performances are free.
People who came to the park for a picnic – totally unaware that a play would be performed – decided to join in on the fun. If there were walkouts, I didn’t see them. And for those who can’t go 10 minutes without checking their messages, no one will bother you if you turn on your iPhone and discover what’s going on in your real world.
You’ll be out in fewer than two hours, for the play is slightly cut. That may explain why Puck says “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in 10 minutes” instead of the usual 40. But in the grand show biz tradition, always leave them wanting more.
To all connected with New York Classical Theatre, do remember that outdoor Shakespeare is how Joe Papp got started. We can only wish the same happy fate for Hagerty and every one of his game and exhilarating actors.