Saturday, August 15, 2009

Saturday Evening on the Upper West Side: Hudson Warehouse presents "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Riverside Park

Two weeks after seeing the Hudson Warehouse's superb production of Hamlet at the Soldiers' and Sailor's Monument in Riverside Park, we were back again tonight, for their delightful romp of a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, ably directed by Richard Harden.

We made sure to get there early this time, so we got a seat on the steps toward the center. (The aisle has to be kept clear because it's often used by the actors, in this case most effectively by an ebullient Tom Demenkoff as Bottom, who at one point plunked himself down next to us and egged us on to applaud Peter Quince's ragtag troupe of village players, including his own casting as Pyramus).

We also got a program so we could find out the actor's names and learn stuff such as that the director of last month's Hamlet tonight was effective doing double duty as the fairie king Oberon and Theseus, duke of Athens.

Since it appeared that little or none of the text of Shakespeare's dreamiest comedy was cut, it was all to the credit of the acting skills and pacing of the direction that the production tonight seemed to take place in the time of a dream's whisper when it actually ran from 6:30 p.m. to a little after 8 p.m., just as the sky was darkening.

As in the previous production we saw, Hudson Warehouse uses basically the patio with a minimal set: apart from a a few Mylar balloons and two other decorations, the stage was bare thoroughout except when six chairs are brought on for the three couples who sit in the "audience" during the Pyramus and Thisbe play within the play at Dream's conclusion.

But the actors use the setting of the monument to their advantage, arriving and exiting via the ledges. The four members of the company playing the young people in love - Matt Amira, Maxwell Eddy, Kate Foster, Camila Jones - were particularly athletic in their jumping entrances. And they were equally adept at conveying the sweetness in their natures and the comic physicality of the romantic complications engendered by the magic flower.

There were some fascinating choices. Ron Dreyer was outstanding as a Puck cast daringly: he's a big, hearty, shaven-headed guy here, with an ever-present cigar (he induces sleep in the lovers late in the play via blowing smoke in their faces). Some of his line readings were wonderfully idiosyncratic, with intimations of Ed McMahon's drawn-out "Here's . . . " or Bert Parks singing the Miss America song to herald Hermia's entrance. This is an unusual Puck as a blustery, earthly toomler who doesn't take Oberon's orders so cheerfully.

Another standout in, admittedly, a great role was Tom Demenkoff as Bottom, who interacted with the audience in unusual ways, always to the advantage of effectuating the comedy of the play. In his derby hat, playing the world's hammiest amateur actor, he elicited the biggest laughs of the play.

But the actors in the workingmen's troupe were his equals in the slapstick comedy of their casting and "production" of Pyramus and Thisbe. We encountered them, most boyishly floppy-haired, on our way to the entrance, with their guitar, singing.

Kudos to them all, most if not all of them, who, masked, doubled as faerie attendants to Oberon and Titania. Brandon Reilly was the funniest Thisbe we've ever seen; her "suicide" is particularly hilarious, though his "acting" companions made us giggle as the wall, lion and moon.

Even in small things did the production work. Egeus, Hermia's father, here is Hermia's mother, and played by an appropriately dour Victoria Gomez. Egeus's demand that his daughter marry his choice of a husband or be put to death takes on a very different slant when it's a female parent: less controlling, more rivalrous.

Nicholas Martin-Smith had a great rapport with Amber Voiles, who like him, played the two parallel roles, in her case queenly, as Titania and Hipployta. The opening fight between Oberon and Titania over the changeling child is here played with great intensity as a swordfight and fistfight in which we're never in doubt that Titania's feistiness can overpower Oberon. This gives him a slightly different motive for putting the play's magical spell into action and waas an interesting touch.

The scenes with Titania in love with Bottom-as-donkey are always pretty foolproof, but here they were played more physically, and it's a little disconcerting when you start to actually think about carnal relations between them. As Hippolyte, Amber Voiles three times stepped on the lines of Nicholas Martin-Smith's Theseus - which we first thought was carelessness, then with repetition realized that Hippolyte is an Amazon queen not used to waiting around for a man's pronouncements, not even those of her bethrothed, who after all is only a duke.

The costumes were mostly contemporary informal dress - and they were unobtrusive except for a few brilliant touches: Puck's black T shirt with a big lavender "P" was both self-mocking and superhero-ish; and when Ron Dreyer also took up the role of the master of the revels, Philostrate, his outfit was appropriately pompous and comically grandiose. The young lovers seemed sexy and full of energy in casual clothes, and the fairies looked sprightly as well as spritely without calling to much attention to their other-worldly nature.

Both the songs and the fight sequences (choreographed by Jared Kirby) were performed fluidly, and the production ended on the usual joyful note. A Midsummer Night's Dream, unlike most of Shakespeare's comedies, has no real climax; the natural order of things is resolved gently and almost unobtrusively as the audience shakes off the "dream."

Nicholas Martin-Smith remained on stage after the bows and applause, along with the boy who played the changeling child (Ian Cooper-Smith) to tell us about Hudson Warehouse's productions and ask for the donations to keep these wonderful summer performances going. We dug out our wallets and with gratitude put some money, not enough, into the basket of Camila Jones (Helena) when she came around to our row.

We took the long way to the subway, walking down to Riverside Park's path by the Hudson. It was really beautiful on this mid-August night.

Later we walked on Broadway. We spent all or part of most 1980s summers, when we lived in Florida during the academic year, just a few blocks away, and we miss those wonderful times. They would have been more wonderful, however, if Hudson Warehouse, "the other free Shakespeare in the park," had been around then.

No comments: