Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Night in Bed-Stuy: Continuum Company presents "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Von King Park

We were back in Herbert Von King Park in Bed-Stuy tonight for a brisk and funny CityParks Theater production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Edited down to eighty-five minutes and with five actors playing all twelve roles, the Continuum Company of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts' Theater in a Box: Essential Shakespeare adaptation, I Dream A Little Dream, proved both ingeniously innovative and enormously entertaining.

The Continuum Company is a repertory company drawn from the prestigious alumni population trained through the Tisch School’s Graduate Acting and Design for Stage & Film Departments. The Company’s mission is to empower actors and designers, who share a common artistic training, to work in vehement collaboration with each other in the creation of both new work and staging of the classics. The model harks back to the methods of Shakespeare and Molière when there were actor/artists who simply acted, directed, wrote, and designed all at the same time without anyone noting that they belonged to a different union or guild.

The amphitheater at Von King Park served as a great setting for the production, which didn't dumb down Shakespeare's enchanted comedy but smartened it up, leaving in the poetry and all important plot deals, and adding some contemporary music and dance commenting on and highlighting the details of the story so that it could be resonant among all age groups (there were a lot of little kids, many seated in chairs up front) and across cultures.

Directed by the well-regarded Jim Calder, who probably taught some of the quintet of talented cast members at NYU, this "Little Dream" seemed to work exceptionally well. A pair of musicians off to the right of the stage chimed in at the right moments, the actors were clear and distinct at all times - even over the cries of babies - (the amplification seemed to work flawlessly) - and a simple, basic set provided an ideal setting for the midsummer madness of one of Shakespeare's most playful and romantic comedies.

The five actors were outstanding. Again, we wish we had names, but we had wondered how five performers could tackle the dozen roles in this play. One actress played Puck, and the others the four young lovers: Lysander, Hermia, Helena and Demetrius.

These four also played the rustic acting company putting on the funnily abysmal production of "Pyramis and Thisbe" before the Duke, Thesus, and his Amazon queen Hippolyte, played by the same actress who was Puck, wearing men's garments on one side and female clothing on the other. (The costumes worked extremely well.)

Oberon, king of the fairies, was played by both male actors wearing sunglasses, or only one of them, if the other was needed to play someone else. At one point, Oberon's errant and willful queen, Titania, was played by all three female performers, but then that would drop back if the other actresses were needed for the scene.

This was so ingenious that it was always clear which character was speaking or reacting at any time. A lot of this, of course, can be attributed to the dexterity and versatility of the actors, whose voices dropped or raised in register or who adopted other tricks (like a stooped posture for Hermia's old father Egeus by a talented actor who also played Lysander, Nick Bottom and half of Oberon).

The musical numbers never seemed to detract from the action or language of the play; rather, they enhanced it - none more so for us than a plaintive solo by Puck when he makes things right again for the mortal lovers. All of the players have good singing voices and are marvelously adept at physical comedy. But the romance and the magic of A Midsummer Night's Dream are very much in evidence. It was an enjoyable evening.

As we said last year, when we saw the Piper Theater perform this play at Washington (then J.J. Byrne Park), we first saw a Brooklyn park production of Midsummer Night's Dream on Thursday evening, July 23, 1970 [this is why you should keep a diary too] put on by BACA Repertory in Prospect Park at Wollman Rink.

Thirty-nine years and a day later, we still remember that production fondly. If we should live to 97 and have all our marbles (not a good bet, given Alzheimer's in our family), we'd will have fond memories of the Continuum Company's excellent Dream at Von King Park tonight. On the G train going home, we spoke to a couple of enthusiastic cast members, so we know we're not alone in this.

You can catch this production tomorrow, Saturday, at Von King Park again; next Friday and Saturday, July 31 and August 1, at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem; or on Tuesday, August 4, at East River Park on the Lower East Side. Even if it weren't (incredibly) free, it would be worth seeing for all mortals who don't fall into the fool category - and probably for some who do.

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