Saturday, July 12, 2008

Friday Night at J.J. Byrne Park: The Piper Theatre's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

What revels are in hand? Is there no play,
To ease the anguish of a torturing hour?

After leaving Desert Island's comic book nirvana last evening, we made our way to the recently-unveiled chrome-and-glass Kellogg's Diner Redux and walked down to our wonderfully reliable weekend G train to get to J.J. Byrne Park for the Piper Theatre's amazing production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Thanks to the MTA's scheduling, we barely had time to glance at the sardonically-changed subway advertisements (our favorite so far was when some benign wit changed the tagline for the [very funny] film Forgetting Sarah Marshall's rather cruel tag line YOU DO LOOK FAT IN THOSE JEANS to YOU DO LOOK GREAT IN THOSE JEANS) or stand on the Smith St.-Ninth St. platform contemplating the lambent sky before we were approaching the park where we, more than thirty years ago, used to drive by with our friend's younger brother to purchase nickel bags and take them back to the brownstone on Ninth Street where our friends and rolling papers were waiting.

We were motivated to head for the park by Louise Crawford's this glowing report at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn (from which we also purloined one of Hugh Crawford's excellent photographs of the performance by Hugh Crawford):

A rollicking, frolicking Midsummer Night's Dream delighted a large opening night crowd on the green in JJ Byrne Park on Thursday night.

And what a night it was. The weather was glorious, the sky clear, the half moon luminous and bright.

Directed by John P. McEneny, who teaches drama at MS 51 and runs the Piper Theater, this version of MSND takes place in 1908 Coney Island, a natural setting for the play. "The parks at Coney Island symbolized a reachable escape, a place where almost anyone could go for a day and get lost in the crowd. It was a place where everyone was searching for fun and often found it in the exotic displays or seemingly death-defying rides," write Rosa Schneider, Piper's dramaturg.

Indeed, Shakespeare's popular play is all about magic, escape, identity, and the fantastical. What better way to bring it home to a Brooklyn audience then to set it in our very own urban dreamland.

There were many highpoints in last night's show, which will run this weekend and next in the park located at Fifth Avenue and Third Street in Park Slope, but the cast's high energy, high octane performance of the play surely gave it the kind of bigger than life impact that works wonders in an outdoor show.

Still, the fairy dances were gently rendered even as airplanes passed overhead. A strong cast really packed a wollop in a production that was alternately bawdy, poetic, magical, sexy, acrobatic and really fun in all the right ways.

Owen Campbell, a 14-year-old professional actor was notable in the role of Puck. But all the actors brought great energy and joie de vivre to Piper's memorable version of the play. The lovely set by Lila Trenkova, complete with life guard chairs and twinkling lights, transformed the park. Costumes by Deirdre Cavanaugh were also a treat, as was the sound design by Andy Christian.

Louise pretty much describes the joyous experience we had, though we'd add that we were really impressed by Owen Campbell, too, as well as Sean Phillips as one of the best Oberons we'd ever seen. And we didn't hear any airplanes (perhaps the major carriers all went bankrupt today?).

This wasn't the first time we'd seen A Midsummer Night's Dream in a park. Back on Thursday evening, July 23, 1970 [this is why you should keep a diary too] we saw the fondly-remembered BACA Repertory doing the play in Prospect Park at Wollman Rink, very intimate and informal, with teens and twentysomethings making magic, though without the kind of advanced production values the Piper Theatre's got going on now.

We took two young members of our household, 9yo Jonny and 6yo Jeanette, to that show,

and the kids were as enchanted and quiet as nearly all the many kids sitting on the lawn at J.J. Byrne Park last night. (And the next week, at Riis Park's Bay 1, we got to put our beach blanket next to the blanket of the boy playing Oberon!)

Back when Robert Wagner was mayor and Abe Stark borough president, we Brooklyn kids were introduced to Shakespeare early.

Our fantastic eighth-grade English teacher at Meyer Levin Junior High, Mr. Neil Berger, had us read Twelfth Night in preparation for viewing a production at Grady Technical High School in Sheepshead Bay that we still remember. (In the summer of 1990 we went to a star-studded production of Twelfth Night at Central Park -- it featured Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Gregory Hines, Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, Stephen Collins, Fisher Stevens, John Ames, et al. -- and our 8SPE2 classmate, author/literary agent Linda Konner, with us that night along with her boyfriend, longtime Newark Star-Ledger theater critic Peter Felicia, agreed that the version we'd seen in a Brooklyn high school in 1964 was superior.)

In ninth grade, Mrs. Hazel Sanjour had us read Julius Caesar. We each memorized and delivered a soliloquy, put out a Roman newspaper, saw the 1950s film version at the Eighth Street Playhouse and learned a lot more about Mrs. Sanjour's favorite writer, "the inimitable Bard," as she called him.

And in our senior year at Midwood, we took a fall-semester Shakespeare course with the legendary teacher Mr. Joseph Grebanier. We sat up front and center and can still picture Mr. G in front of us reading the parts of everyone from Polonius to Prince Hal to Sir Toby Belch with enthusiasm. (He told us Polonius's famous advice to Laertes was fatuous: "Why should you never a borrower or a lender be? And plenty of people who are true to themselves who constantly lie to others!") Can we be wrong in thinking we read 24 Shakespeare plays in the fall of 1967?

We miss Mr. Grebanier, but we still have our Brooklyn College 1973 Ottilie Grebanier Drama Award, received for the best play by an undergrad, in honor of the mother of Mr. Grebanier and his less-nice BC English professor brother (their French-sounding family name came from Reinberg, only backwards).

Now we are lucky enough to get to teach Shakespeare to college students. And still go to see great crepuscular productions like Piper Theatre's Midsummer Night's Dream. Catch the magic at J.J. Byrne Park this weekend or next. Thy love ne'er alter till thy sweet life end!

1 comment:

Annie said...

thanks for your wonderful words about Midsummer!
I hope I speak for the entire cast when I say that we had so much fun last summer!
(esp. because we had such lovely audiences)
Check out our upcoming season!