Wednesday, August 14, 2019

53 (2019-2020): Reviews: MIDSUMMER: A BANQUET (seen August 13, 2019)

You've read the reviews. Now read the book. THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE, 2012-2013 A Brief Memoir and Reviews

 “Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius and Puck”

 Note: for the program, please click here.

Caroline Amos, Alex J. Gould. All photos: Chad Batka.
Hungry for a taste of the Bard that tickles your palate as well as your ribs? May I suggest a visit to Café Fae, just below Union Square? There, in a historic building that once served as the home and studio of abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning, a lively, charming, although not memorably spicy, production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is being presented by Third Rail Projects and Food of Love in a cabaret environment, supplemented by tidbits from a tasting menu. 
Charles Osborne, Caroline Amos.
I don’t know if the space has been specially designed for the occasion, but the décor is decidedly art nouveau, with period posters and artifacts on every wall, and a wait staff (who will soon be the actors in the play) dressed accordingly. The women, for example, wear white blouses and long, black, leather skirts.
Charles Osborne, Caroline Amos, Adrienne Paquin, Alex J. Gould, Joshua Gonzalz, Lauren F. Walker.
You sit either at tiny, “candlelit” tables, each with four bentwood chairs (not the ultimate in comfort over two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission), or at a raised dais running along one side of the room. The play itself is enacted mainly in a narrow, central aisle, with the tables to either side. Along that performance spine stand a series of classical white pillars around which director Zach Morris cleverly manipulates his company. (Jason Simms is the designer.) Sightline problems are never fully resolved but the constant movement of the show’s eight actors means they rarely last too long.
Ryan Wuestewald.
Yes, that's eight actors, each of whom plays more than one role—the lovers, for example, also cover the rude mechanicals (as well as the faeries)—in Morris and Victoria Rae Sook’s modestly adapted but generally faithful version of Shakespeare’s delightful paean to the vagaries and confusions of love, both immature and mature. (Sook, by the way, also plays Titania and Hippolyta.) Given the food provided, one might paraphrase Puck by saying, “the course(s) of true love actually do run smooth.”
Ryan Wuestewald, Victoria Rae Sook. 
Tyler M. Holland’s costume scheme dresses all but Theseus/Oberon (Ryan Wuestewald) and Titania/Hippolyta in tight, tan pants, high boots, white shirts, and suspenders, with occasional differentiations indicated by coats or jackets of one sort or another. The mechanicals are distinguished principally by their workers’ smocks, Theseus/Oberon and Titania/Hippolyta wear garments modestly suggestive of their royal or magical status, like the flimsy, white linens that set them off in the forest scenes.
Charles Osborne, Alex J. Gould, Joshua Gonzalez, Caroline Amos, Adrienne Pasquin.
Using imaginative, minimalist means, including jars with artificial candles like those on the tables, or the simple floral headdress and mouthpiece used to transform Bottom into an ass, Morris weaves his actors through the confined space with precisely calibrated movements. Not a single line reading, pause, or gesture has been overlooked, an approach surely necessitated by the cramped, intimate quarters, but also one that reduces any spontaneity in the performances.
Joshua Gonzalez. 
Still, the actors do well enough by their multiple responsibilities to sustain your pleasure throughout. Everyone moves with grace and clarity, suggesting considerable movement training. Dance sequences, one of them extended, offer sweetly romantic diversions.

Caroline Amos (my adult granddaughter's favorite) is an adorable Hermia and Snug (the joiner), her petite stature made more distinct by the lanky Adrienne Paquin as both Peter Quince and the famously tall Helena. Alex J. Gould does nicely by Lysander while also handling Flute, who gets to play the doomed heroine, Thisbe in MND’s play-within-the-play.
Company of Midsummer: A Banquet.
Joshua Gonzales is suitably innocuous as Demetrius and Snout, while Lauren F. Walker breaks multiple casting conventions to portray Puck. She also plays Philostrate and, perhaps as a touch of irony, Starveling. Both Sook and Wuestewald are attractive rulers of their domains, and Charles Osborne undertakes the secondary role of Egeus and the lynchpin one of Bottom.

Bottom is a role in which many have tried but few succeeded, not least of them James Cagney in the old Max Reinhardt film version which, however, had in Mickey Rooney a Puck I’ve never seen equaled. In a production where the company is competent but not exceptional, Osborne is the energetic standout. He plays Egeus in a manful way but brings a questionably fey affect to his otherwise capricious Bottom. Admittedly, he gets the majority of the laughs, but he has to work extra hard for them.  By following a precisely set sequence of exaggerated comic shtick, he deflates the humor that should arise naturally from Bottom’s naivete. At bottom, this character is no easy task.
Charles Osborne. 
This immersive production is reminiscent of the original, pre-Broadway, Ars Nova production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, staged as if in a red-draped, 19th-century Russian cabaret. That show, which was a musical, had the actors perform all around the tables, even on platforms behind them. 

Midsummer, despite several musical interpolations, only occasionally brings the actors into such immediate, head-turning proximity, often in order for them to casually deposit items of food (like a cloth napkin containing scrumptious cherries) on your table. These have no immediate contextual purpose, but, like the small plates of food waiting for you when you arrive (or the wine you may have purchased in advance), add a soupcon of culinary enjoyment to your evening with the Bard.

Recent archaeological discoveries at Shakespeare’s Globe in London have revealed what audiences at his plays indulged in. As Anne Bramley has reported, they ate “cold nibbles and ready-made street food,” including nuts, “grapes, figs, blackberries, raspberries and plums” Cold chicken is also likely to have been digested, but, judging by the many shells uncovered, the most common gustatory choice was oysters.

At Midsummer: A Banquet you won’t find any of these, but you’ll sample, as per the first items on the menu, such prettily arranged delicacies (food design by Emily Baltz) as “fresh crudités, brie and beets, salumi, pickles, eggplant chickpea tahini spread, red pepper romesco, butter with herb oil, breads.”

Perhaps 400 years from now, they’ll find our crumbs.

Café Fae
827 Broadway, NYC
Through September 7