Midwinter Night Dreaming

The weather outside is frightful -- for me at least, since I hate, hate, hate cold weather -- so a good antidote to keep my spirits warm has been the latest production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream by the Red Monkey Theater Group and the news that director Julie Taymor will be directing her own version of the comedy for Brooklyn's Theatre for a New Audience.  More about Ms. Taymor in a bit, but first let me tell you how much fun I had at Red Monkey's new space at Cahill Theater in Riverdale, New York, Thursday night.

Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis (thank you) know that I'm especially biased toward Midsummer.  Not only is it one of my favorite plays, it's also one of my most cherished memories of productions on my acting resume. I can never resist seeing a new version of it and I try my best not to draw comparisons to what we did years ago in our own show set in the "New World," with the fairies as Native American shapeshifters. Shakespeare's material is so universal, it still manages to inspire artists and delight viewers over and over again. The Red Monkey team has re-imagined the Bard's fanciful tale with a fresh vision soaked in contemporary relevancy, as we see the worldshaking impact of the clash between supernatural royalty, while at the root of it all we still witness real world issues of love and infidelity, as well as a culture clash between the older and the newer generations. Director Tal Aviezer offers some interesting touches as characters with their modern totems, such as cars, smartphones, and GPS devices, enter the surreal fairyland where the line is blurred between dreams and waking life.

The Equity-showcase production is a nice mix of professional actors and young students, all working well together as they bring their characters to life. Experience shines forth in the commanding performances of Peter Green as the mighty Oberon and Lawrence Reina as Nick Bottom, both bringing necessary over-the-top histrionics to their roles, while at the same time offering subtle, nuanced choices that made those oft-played parts fully their own. Ed Friedman was fun to watch in one of the play's doubled roles -- as the elder Egeus, with his walking-cane limp and shaky hand, he still had a powerful, assertive voice, and as one of the comical "Mechanicals," he was spry of foot yet meeker in personality, a testament to the words of Shakespeare differentiating each character, but also an example of the important choices every individual actor can bring.  Lisa Spielman as the noble Titania was a joy to watch, especially when she sings with her fairy entourage. I've seen the role of Puck performed a number of different ways, so I was relieved and intrigued to see Sean Grady's depiction of Robin Goodfellow as a swashbuckling Victorian. It made me want to see more swordfighting among the fairies! The rest of the cast -- Rebekah Madebach, Rasha Clark, Stacey Cabezas, Craig Campanaro, Denny Desmarais, Sandra Ehrlich, Clemmie Evans, Mario Fuentes, and Jillian Greenstein -- all have their moments to shine as the young lovers, the mystical fairies, and the hilarious "Mechanicals."

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a perennial favorite, because it deftly weaves multiple storylines into one engaging, fast-moving, beautifully written narrative. Its fundamental themes continue to ring true no matter how differently the source material is interpreted.  I am eager to see how Julie Taymor adapts it. Hopefully, she will refrain from some of the excesses associated with her last Broadway show, Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark, and recapture some of the creativity displayed in her acclaimed stage production of The Lion King.  She has previously directed other Shakespearean plays -- The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, and Titus Andronicus -- so I have high hopes that she will deliver a good show. She should, however, take some cues from Red Monkey's production, when an enchanted forest can be depicted by the shadow of branches on a wooden stage and a curtain pulled back to reveal a simple yet elegantly effective field of stars. 

"Shall we their fond pageants see?" As long as it's A Midsummer Night's Dream, no matter what the season, I say, "Yes!"