Now Shakespeare's Being Set in a New Jersey Junkyard?Culture Watch
Theater directors have staged William Shakespeare’s mirthful 1590s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream in just about every possible setting, and yet one more was added last Wednesday when a new version of it opened at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison, N.J. – a junkyard.
Yes, a junkyard.
Director Bonnie Monte and her imaginative designers did a fine job of recreating a junkyard setting and gave their characters junkyard costumes. A fairy Queen wore a huge robe of computer discs sewn together. A man wore a pair of pants and a shirt with hundreds of brass keys sewn on to them. Several performers romped about with pots on their heads. In act two, there is even a junkyard neon sign to remind you where you are.
This is certainly not a junk play, though. It is a summer frolic, a visual delight, a whole summer festival wrapped up in one show.
Even though the plot of the play, staged at an amphitheater across the street at the College of Saint Elizabeth’s, is a bit difficult to follow, it works well. Theseus, the KIng of Athens is going to be married to the Queen of the Amazons (no Wonder Woman in sight) and invites a couple, Demetrius and Hermia, to the ceremony. The problem is that Hermia is also in love with Lysander, who by the end of act one falls for another woman, Helena. You can see the trouble here.
While the quartet of lovers tries to sort out their problems, the forest outside of ancient Athens in which they romancing each other is invaded by an army of male and female faeries. The whole crew is then invaded by a small, noisy group of noisy itinerant actors, who are trying to write a play to be performed at the wedding. It is a grand madhouse of people, a Grand Central of arguments, debates, woes and endless acrobatic tumbling.
Does anything really happen in the play? Well, no. The play is terrific, though, due to Monte’s inspired direction, the scenery and costumes and the solid acting from all. It is a lot of fun, a gigantic and merry romp through old Athens.
There is color everywhere in this play. The costumes are vivid in design, the sometimes wall and sometimes forest sets acre scrumptious and the starry sky above impressive.
The acrobatics are amazing, right from the first moment of the show, when the king shoves a singer off of a pedestal. Everybody seems to be tumbling this way and that, some in joy and some in fear.
The narrator of the play is one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters, Puck. He is a bouncing acrobatic fool who races about the stage, and Shakespeare’s insane forest world, trying to stitch the play together and making full use of the humans around him. “What fools these mortals be!” he bellows in a memorable line from the play. The impish Puck, played marvelously by Felix Mayes, is a wonder to behold.
The other actors are highly skilled. Earl Baker Jr. and Vanessa Morosco are good as the King and Queen, Courtney McGowan is a delight as the blonde bombshell Hermia and even better when she plays a tiny but not quite ferocious lion. Jonathan Finnergan is terrific as lothario Lysander, at first after Hermia and then after fairy knockout Helena. Nike Kadri is the lovely Helena, who bounds across the stage at a pace fast enough to win her the pole position at he Indy 500. Austin Blunk is solid as Demetrius but hysterically funny when he dons a dress and a bad, bad fitting blonde woman’s wig to play goofy girl Thisbe. Ian Hersey steals the show playing Nick Bottom and Pyramus and is a delight when turned into an ass in the second act.
The problem with any play on an outdoor stage, or course, is that the engines of the modern world are going to intrude. That is especially true at the Shakespeare Festival. A train line runs just a few hundred feet past the theater and there is a small airport nearby. Trains rumble by on an hourly basis. Planes take off and land at the airport all night long. It is such a common occurrence that the director builds a small scene into the play where the actors point up at the sky, and the plane, hoot and howl and hide behind some walls until the year 2017 fade into the night sky.
Another problem at the Shakespeare Theatre, at any outdoor theater is summer, is the horde of mosquitoes that attack everybody. The stage is bombed with bug spray and they sell bug spray pads at the concession counter, but the mosquitoes still get you. In the middle of the play, Hermia whips out an oversized can of bug spray and douses all the bugs on stage; the audience roars in delight.
There is not a lot of direct history about Athens in the play, but you learn a lot about actors in that era (1590s) and the carnival festival that started in ancient Athens and Rome and flourished over the years.
By the 16th century small bands of actors, such as those in the play, traveled from village to village to stage shows. Some ventured into the larger cities. This was popular entertainment, especially in Italy. This disorganized, ad hoc practice was the foundation for the regularly established theater and, later, tours of plays from town to town. In Shakespeare’s England, Lords hired troupes of actors to perform for them and then troupes staged plays at regular theaters, always encouraged by Queen Elizabeth I, who loved the theater. The carnival was a very religious event in ancient Athens, later tied to Lent. It grew from there and soon included acrobats, jesters and singers. Shakespeare gives us parts of it – the acrobats and dancers - and sets the stage for the rest of that amusement history.
This is a quite successful early summer staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
PRODUCTION: The show is produced by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University. The sets are designed by Bonnie Monte, who also designed the junkyard costumes and directed the play. Lighting: Burke Wilmore, Scenic Consultant: Steven L. Beckel, Costume Associate: Tiffany Lent, Choreography: Felix Mayes.
The play runs through July 30.
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