Monday, December 9, 2013

A Dream Opening for TFANA's New Home

All the superlatives have been used up on Julie Taymor’s various productions over the years, so I’ll try to refrain.  That’s not easy, however, in light of this scrumptious presentation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — a fitting inaugural production of the new permanent home of Theatre for a New Audience:  the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a delectable feast for language lovers, comedy and romance lovers.  This production is imaginative, light, sprightly, clever, funny, well designed, well acted….superlatives rain down.

After the debacle that was Ms. Taymor’s film version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, my faith is restored by this staging of Midsummer.  Here, Ms. Taymor uses a hodgepodge of technology and arts available to theatre and circus, and blends them to a euphoric wholeness that never overwhelms the words Shakespeare gave us (and the actors) in this beloved play. 

Once we’ve gasped at the beauty and cleverness of the active scenic design — very active — we are enthralled by Puck, in white face, chalky like a sloppy jester, played by the extraordinary Kathryn Hunter.  Hers is a highly intelligent, impish and athletic Puck, doing aerial acrobatics and leading all the players, human and fairy, between Athens and the magical wood “a league without the town.”

You may have heard that the stage is filled with children.  That’s true, playing the sprites and fairies of the forest, singing, swooping, creating the mist and the skies, almost flying.  These images are helped along by the organic choreography by Brian Brooks.  Musicians Jonathan Mastro and Wilson Torres carry the children and us to the fairyland to meet Titania, Oberon, Mustardseed and the rest on waves of music by Elliot Goldenthal. All the designers combined in this production created a wonderland for us, including Es Devlin (Scenic), Constance Hoffman (Costume), Donald Holder (Lighting), Matt Tierney (Sound), and Sven Ortel (Projection Design).

The stage, the balconies, the edges and tops and bottoms and sides are all well used — characters disappear into trap doors, up to the heavens, backward and forward, and the trap doors provide still more levels for the actors to play in.  From the lovers to the mechanicals, this ¾ stage and above production afforded space and angles and highs and lows.

Tina Benko as Titania
Tina Benko’s towering Titania (children playing fairies aids in this image) has ivory skin and a musical voice making for a sensual and funny and extremely pale embodiment of fair Titania. In stark contrast to Titania’s whiteness was the darker than deep brown of David Harewood’s Oberon, his magnificent voice commanding then cooing and wooing.  Shakespeare’s verse flows trippingly on the tongues of these two well-matched artists.

David Harewood as Oberon, Kathryn Hunter as Puck at right
Back in Athens, Egeus is well played by the always reliable TFANA stalwart, Robert Langdon Lloyd.  Okwui Okpokwasili and Roger Clark were well suited to each other and their roles as Hippolyta and Theseus.  The four lovers were quite delightful, passionate, lithe, limber, enjoying a fine pillow fight abetted by the fairies.  Those disguised children even play the magical forest, putting obstacles in the way of the benighted and bewitched lovers lost in the woods.  It was all very clever fun.  Good work by the mix-and-match lovers, Mandi Masden as Helena, LillyEnglert as Hermia, Zach Appelman as Demetrius, and Jake Horowitz as Lysander.

Zach Appelman as Demetrius, Lilly Englert as Hermia, and Jake Horowitz as Lysander
The Mechanicals are a motley crew, led by a charmingly gauche Joe Grifasi as Peter Quince; a haplessly huge Brendan Averett as Snug the Joiner, the frightened lion; a sweet-voiced Zachary Infante as Francis Flute and a femininely feisty Thisbe; William Youmans as Robin Starveling, an easily affronted Moonshine; Jacob Ming-Trent as Tom Snout, or The Wall; all mastered by the remarkable Max Casella as Nick Bottom, the (dream) weaver.  The edits in the script were made with a light precise touch, nothing was missed, least of all Philostrate’s prattling about the various offerings for entertainment at the Duke’s nuptials.  As played by Puck, who knows how to entertain a crowd, Philostrate passes by the hemming and hawing about what play was to be presented — we want Pyramus and Thisbe, and we are not disappointed.

The only flaw in the TFANA’s brand new Polonsky Shakespeare Center is that the central section of the orchestra is not adequately raked — from my second row seat, I could not see action just left of center especially when the actors were lying or rolling or otherwise on the ground, as fairies and imps and lovers are wont to be.  Bits in that spot garnered laughs, but not from me – and the fellow in front of me was not inordinately tall 

Midsummer Night’s and Bottom’s Dreams are many-leveled, quite literally, as Ms. Taymor likes to lift and swing her sets and her actors into the heavens and down to the ground (thanks and praises to Airealistic for the aerial design and flight), starting with Puck in the opening scene.  The stage starts off spare and grows to the limits of imagination and a midsummer night’s dream.  This production happily runs to January 12.  Start your new year off right!

~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the play, and check the savings account to see if she can afford to go again. 

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