Saturday, August 7, 2010

Saturday Afternoon in Fort Greene: Curious Frog Theatre Company presents "A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Scavengers" at Fort Greene Park

The first outdoor production of Shakespeare we ever saw was as a teenager forty years ago - on Thursday evening, July 23, 1970, to be exact (this is why you should keep a diary too) - when BACA Repertory presented A Midsummer Night's Dream in Prospect Park at Wollman Rink.

You'd think after seeing so many stagings of Dream over the years - just last year, by the Continuum Company in Von King Park in Bed-Stuy and by Hudson Warehouse in Riverside Park, and the year before, by the Piper Theatre in Park Slope's Washington Park - we'd be jaded or bored by now, especially since in the past week alone we've already seen five Shakespeare plays in Brooklyn parks.

But we can honestly say that today we were still just as excited and wide-eyed as ever as we watched Curious Frog Theatre Company's A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Scavengers late this afternoon on a grassy hill looking toward the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument in Fort Greene Park.

Directed by ReneƩ Rodriguez, whose Romeo and Juliet we admired last summer, this Dream is special in a lot of ways, more impressive for the fact that we've already seen more than a dozen productions of the comedy over the years.

This staging, set within the frame of a fraternity/sorority scavenger hunt with a cast of bright-eyed, enthusiastic, charming and rowdy actors

who appeared young enough to be undergrads, was fast-paced, action-packed (the fight scenes were the longest, toughest and best we've ever seen in a Shakespeare comedy), and funny presentation.

The fairies in the play are still real fairies, but the mechanicals ineptly putting on the play-within-the-play, "Pyramus and Thisbe," are members of the college support staff: Bottom seems to be a low-level assistant coach, and others are workers from the cafeteria, custodial staff, secretarial pool or security guards.

It's a nice conceit, and the concept of the scavenger hunt, while giving Shakespeare's text primacy, nicely envelopes the comedy in a hectic but fun competition; every once in a while, contestants - a boy and girl paired with matching-color T-shirts with insignias of their three-Greek-letter affiliations - runs by in the background, hunting their next item.

And why not Greek? Shakespeare's characters are young Athenians, after all. Hippolyta and Theseus seem to be a couple overseeing the event; those of us who work at universities know they probably have the title of Director of Greek Life.

It was one of the most gorgeous days of the summer, with a shining sun but no oppressive heat and humidity. The cast members, as at all the Shakespeare-in-the-park productions we've seen this week (or ever) had to compete with surrounding sounds - there was some sort of big event at the monument - but with the clear, distinct voices of the actors and the high level of activity "onstage," there really didn't seem to be any distractions.

A Midsummer Night's Dream has a large cast, and here they were uniformly excellent and worked well together. As in many productions, the actors playing Theseus and Hippolyta, whose royal marriage (in the text, it's royal anyway) is celebrated at the end of the play (along with the marriages of the young people once the "dream" of the enchanted forest is untangled and set right), also play the royal fairy couple Oberon and Titania.

Michael Kennen Miller brings athletic grace and playful determination to the role of Oberon, and his scenes with a slinky and sultry Edie Monroy as Helena (both of them exposing, or appearing to, lots of flesh) are sexy and funny. Puck here is a loose-limbed, pigtailed, slinky and also nearly-naked Krystine Summers (she doubles at the end as a jive-talking campus activities director Philostrate), who gives a nice twist to her line reading of "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

As the four young lovers caught in real and magic-induced complicated triangles and quadrangles, Angela Sharp (Hermia), Brandi Bravo (Helena), Alex Gould (Demetrius) and Andrew Sanford (Lysander), excel at physical comedy and action while preserving the wit of their poetry.

Their disputes and chases in the forest - nominally the locale for the college students' scavenger hunt - are little masterpieces of comic timing.

The working-class "actors" in the hilariously bad play also are skillful at comedy, though of the broader sort, with (truly) funny faces and slapstick, over-the-top gestures. A frustrated Petra Quince (Tai Verley), slightly smarter than her crew, has to contend with this melange of goofballs and misfits: Flute (Manuel de la Portilla), a slob who has to use a horrible falsetto and garish blond wig to play the female lover Thisbe; the wimpy, simpering Starveling (Christiana Little), who needs her stuffed animal to keep stagefright at bay as she holds a flashlight to mimic moonlight;

Snout, the dim security guard who "presenteth a wall" dressed in a brick-like dashiki; and the rubber-faced, too-eager Snug (a very funny Sora Baek), who roars the part of the lion.

The standout in the most important role among the rustics is Brent Yoshikami, the outrageously self-important and narcissistic Bottom. He's really funny, both in rehearsals and playing the lover Pyramus in the "tedious" play-within-a-play, and his scenes with a smitten-by-magic Titania (Monroy at her best) once he's turned into an ass, are priceless.

The scavenger hunt ends with a slo-mo (very slo-mo) race to the finish line to the music from Chariots of Fire. It's very funny, and of course our four prinicipals are bested by the red-T-shirted pair played by Baek and McGhee (de la Portilla and Little also double as scavengers).

It's just one of many inspired touches by director Rodriguez, who with her cast and crew, have created a unique Midsummer Night's Dream.

The play can be seen at Astoria Park's Water Walk tomorrow and over the next four weekends all over the city, in Prospect Park, Waterside Plaza, Pelham Bay Park, Inwood Hill Park, Battery Park and Queensbridge Park. We're grateful to Curious Frog Theatre Company for again bringing top-notch classic theater to some underserved communities around New York City.

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