Reviewed by Michael Landes
The start of the summer this year was rainier and chillier than usual, and because of the rain, the June 22nd opening performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Carroll Park was delayed. For a frightened moment, I considered the thought that the performance might not occur––after all, the show relied on electric lighting barely protected by some trees, and enough of a downpour could prevent the use of those tools altogether. Thankfully, the rain ceased, and the play lit up the park, literally and figuratively.
“Midsummer” is often roughly divided into three threads: that of the lovers, that of the mechanicals, and that of the fairies. This neglects Theseus and Hippolyta, whose military drama occurs entirely offstage and is conveyed to the audience through two brief scenes. Their inclusion is mostly important because it is they who launch the play with a somewhat dark conversation on military conquest, only to be interrupted by Egeus, the frantic father of Hermia. The leads are rapidly introduced by Egeus and in a matter of minutes, we enter the magical forest, controlled by the fairies, where the bulk of the action takes place.
The fairies, who meddle with the lovers and the mechanicals to comic ends, have some of the driest passages of the play, with long conversations about Puck’s exploits and the conflict between Oberon and Titania surrounding an Indian changeling. Regrettably this production did little to solve these problems; the choice to make Oberon into a bellowing tyrant and Titania into a half-blind witch did not help to speed them along. The understandable intent was to add a darker, more ominous element to the play, but the tonal shift was too great to justify as such.
This being said, the acting was uniformly high quality, and was especially remarkable in the attention paid to relatively small characters. Pete McElligott as Theseus and Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy as Hippolyta were true lynchpins of the production, opening and closing the show with a sense of authority and a clearly defined relationship often lacking from portrayals of those characters. Also of note were the mechanicals, especially Brandon Dial as Snug and Justin Gillman as Starveling (doubling as Egeus as well). Their performances in the Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe were incredibly good, and they, among the rest of the mechanicals, established their scenes as ensemble efforts. Another massive standout from the mechanicals was Corey Whelihan as a truly electric Bottom, whose every appearance prompted show-stopping laughter and applause.
Smith Street Stage has been producing Shakespeare in Carroll Park for almost a decade, and their familiarity with the space of the park showed as they used all the area around and behind the audience, especially in the lovers’ quarrel scenes. This was a wonderful touch at times, as when Demetrius (Alex Purcell) would sprint an entire lap around the sizable seating area for the audience. At other times, the technique regrettably masked parts of dialogue from being seen by the entire audience, including the beloved “You bead, you acorn” monologue. The intention was clear and worthwhile, but the execution lacked in practical consideration. Another slight drag on the production was the music direction, which relied largely on pseudo-Elizabethan acoustic instruments instead of a broader palette of sound. Visually, the production was roughly updated to present-day, and so these moments of song were notably out of step with the rest of the show.
“Midsummer” is a difficult play to get wrong, and a difficult play to get right as well. But the element which speaks best to the quality of this production was the number of children in a nearby playground who stopped playing and watched, loudly laughing during Bottom’s best scenes (including one of the longest and best death scenes for Pyramus I have seen) and happily mesmerized by the lovers’ reconciliation. Even with my few criticisms, one cannot ask for more than this from any play, especially Shakespeare. Like the potion of the play, the show enchanted the audience and the kids, some of whom had likely never experienced Shakespeare before. Regardless of experience with “Midsummer” or Shakespeare, the production perfectly satisfied us on our own midsummer night.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” plays now through July 15th at Carroll Park, on President St. between Court St and Smith St, Brooklyn. http://www.smithstreetstage.org/playing-now/