A Midsummer Night's Dream (Astoria)
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
July 9, 2010
On the Square Productions is presenting A Midsummer Night's Dream in a private backyard in Astoria. It's kind of the equivalent to a Shakespeare performance in a speakeasy. I walked up 44th Street looking for a community garden or a sign and eventually found people with programs on the sidewalk outside of a house. The box office is down a couple stairs, hidden from street level, as if you were entering a basement apartment. Then when the "house" opened, we walked around the back of the real house to the backyard—a beautiful garden.
It is easy to see why the producers were inspired to use it. It is lit beautifully by Christopher "Shadow" Edwards and it's a pleasant place to spend an evening. But the usable playing space between flowerbeds is only about 15 feet across and there are three fruit trees in a triangle growing in the yard, including one down center that we'll call The Tree. Although the garden is quite deep, the back end is fairly unusable because upstage action would be blocked by The Tree. So everything has to happen downstage, on either side of The Tree. To accommodate this, the seating (three rows of eight metal folding chairs across on risers) is squished as close to the house as possible leaving little room for knees or a big backpack like mine. Also whenever fairies danced or lovers quarreled it seemed like they were cramped, brushing against trees or too close to the torches lining the perimeter of the garden.
In the program, director Michael Swartz promises a light, fun romp with a throughline of humanity. This is pretty much delivered. All three sets of lovers are played like modern-day hipsters, not too deep, frequently pulling out their cellphones, and easily getting their feelings hurt. Titania and her retinue are a giggly bunch, with Titania (producer Rachel McPhee) more husky-voiced sensual and her fairies veering more towards valley girls. Bottom and his mechanical brethren are as goofy and hilarious as you want them to be.
The style of acting across this production sometimes works and sometimes gets in the way. The garden has good acoustics for an outdoor performance space. But there are still birds, air conditioners, traffic, and the ubiquitous Mister Softee Truck jingle to contend with. When the actors breathed and spoke on their voices they filled the space easily and it was very satisfying to hear (often in the more emotionally heightened moments of the play). Unfortunately many of the acting choices in not-so-climactic moments are intimate, casually ironic, precious, and altogether too soft. Sometimes this subtlety is touching, immediately contemporary and funny. But as an older woman beside me crowed to her companion halfway through the first scene, "When are they going to speak up? I can't understand what they're saying, can you?" With effort, I could understand most everything, but they are cheating themselves (and the audience) of the power of the language, shrinking down large ideas and images to fit a more casual modern paradigm. There is also a lot of contemplative pausing between lines as well as interjections of "God!", "Ugh!", "Eww!", etc. because the actors aren't attuned to putting their emotional experiences and thoughts on the lines. This really slows the play down in places… did I mention the cramped, unpadded folding chairs? Much easier to forget the folding chairs in scenes that were louder and faster paced. A notable exception to this is Chris White as Oberon. Not only does he consistently embrace the language, allowing us to experience his thoughts in action on the words, but he brings a little menace to Oberon that I enjoyed.
However, there are places where subtle choices and contemporary spins work well. Branson Reese who plays Snug steals the show as the near-mum actor ironically cast as the Lion. I also particularly loved Swartz's genius choice (which I won't disclose) for the scene where Lysander (Michael Raver) asks Hermia (Marnie Schulenburg) to run off to the woods. The performance of that section (including Caitlin Kinsella's participation in it as Helena) was great fun to behold. Zack Calhoon as Bottom does a beautifully nuanced job with his soliloquy about what he concludes has been his dream about the fairy queen.
Many quirks due to the set limitations and directorial choices, hamper the play. Nevertheless in some moments those same quirks are exactly what make the play fun and, furthermore, make this production a different experience from any other Midsummer you'll see. So if you're game for a little off-the-beaten track theater in Queens, buy a ticket in advance, bring a seat cushion, forget your backpack, and spend a pleasant evening in a beautiful backyard for a unique performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream.