Monday, July 2, 2012

Monday Night in Harlem: Pulse Ensemble Theatre's 8th Annual Harlem Summer Shakespeare presents "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Riverbank State Park

Tonight we enjoyed the first preview performance of a deliciously audacious production of A Midsummer Night's Dream presented by Pulse Ensemble Theatre in the gorgeous surroundings of Harlem's Riverbank State Park.
Directed by Pulse Ensemble Theatre's artistic director Alexa Kelly and featuring an adventurous cast including the wonderful Brian Richardson as Bottom, this Midsummer Night's Dream is not afraid to be outrageous and over the top, and that made the performance a whole lot of fun, even in an initial preview where they're probably still trying to work out the kinks a bit.
Still, you wouldn't have been disappointed, and we weren't, although we'd really enjoyed the last two productions in what's now the Eighth Annual Harlem Summer Shakespeare experience: we were lucky to see Macbeth in 2010 and As You Like It last year, and this comedy -- probably the one most closely associated with summer open-air Shakespeare -- seemed just as vibrant to us.
The last two years we went to the Harlem Summer Shakespeare shows at the park's gorgeous amphitheater setting in mid-August, around Harlem Week. This August, however, the company will be in Scotland, not to perform "the Scottish play" of Shakespeare's again, but because they've been selected for the famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where they'll be performing A Man for All Times: W. E. B. DuBois (we've taught DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk several times, having appreciated him and his work since we first came across it in Prof. Dan Mayers' Afro-American Literature I class back in Brooklyn College in 1973).

A Man For All Times: W. E. B. DuBois from Brian Richardson on Vimeo.

So obviously Alexa Kelly, Brian Richardson, and others will be elsewhere in August. We were happy that Pulse brought Shakespeare to Harlem early this summer, and this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream will be playing previews tomorrow and Thursday and then Wednesdays through Sundays from July 6-22 at 8 p.m. The amphitheater is comfortable, but you might want to bring a pillow and tonight we wish we'd had some insect repellant, as not only the onstage fairies were flying around.
This Dream's Athenians exist in contemporary times, and you know that right away by their dress and the Lord & Taylor shopping bags carried by the noble, stylish lesbian couple, Thesius (Kelsey Arendt) and Hippolyta (Maria Franklin), about to celebrate their state (and state-approved) wedding. (Nnoema Nkuku is hilarious as Philostrate, their mistress of revels, sending up the stock movie role of the harried servant confidante).
Some productions have the actors playing the royal Theseus and Hippolyte double as the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, but here the fairy monarchs are both men, flamboyant in their powers and sexualized costumes, with Steven J. West (Oberon) and Karim Sekou standouts as unforgettable as the best vogue dancers you'll see outside the legendary "houses" of uptown gay ballrooms.
Thia Stephan is splendid playing Puck as a delectable drag queen, with Mariah Franklin, Kerianne Furgerson, and Denise M. Whalen as outrageous fairies with outré outfits and neon hair offer wonderful support to her and to Oberon.
The spectacle of the play will appeal to anyone, especially kids, and Bob Miller deserves special credit for the wonderfully imaginative costumes.
The two groups of human characters -- the four young lovers and Hermia's father Egeus, and the rude mechanicals putting on the play -- are also well-cast, with the very talented Elliott Mayer, who we said last year played two As You Like It characters "with startling difference and sublime bits of business" does the same thing here as a cranky, lame Egeus and a blue collar, outer borough Peter Quince.
The laborers here definitely are New York City union types -- "What do we want? A job! When do we want it? Now!" they chant as they bear their protest signs. They view the play they're putting on for the wedding, Pyramus and Thisbe, as first and foremost a job and a paycheck, and all of them adopt Noo Yawk accents and mannerisms, and they are adept at physical comedy.
In some productions of Dream, you can get a little restless during the play-within-a-play, but this one is very funnily played and fast-moving. Kudos to (again) Nneoma Nkuku (Snug), Greg Nussen (Flute), John L. Payne (Snout) and Brian Richardson (Bottom), whose scenes with Karim Sekou as a potion-besotted Titania are not only funny but touching -- with the interesting frisson and added resonance of both Bottom and Titania being played by black men. We've now seen Brian Richardson interpret Bottom, Jaques, and Macbeth, and we're really impressed.
The actors playing the four young lovers chase their mixed-up midsummer passions through the magical forest also excel at physical comedy, and there are some wonderful bits of business in their interactions. There's a buoyancy to the way they portray Helena (Jacklyn Collier), Hermia (Sharone Halevy), Lysander (Blaine Smith) and Demetrius (a very fussy Geoffrey Hillback, but the essential sweetness in their characters is never lost.
The lighting design by Steve O'Shea was effective, more so than we've seen before at Riverside Park, though at this time of year, night descended a bit later. The sound problems we've noticed before are minimized, but at times were slightly disconcerting.
However, that hardly mattered. We very much liked Alexa Kelly's conception of A Midsummer Night's Dream, last produced by Pulse Ensemble Theatre several years ago and obviously totally reconceived to good effect.
To be able to sit in the Riverbank State Park amphitheater and be surrounded by the waters of the Hudson, the towers of New Jersey and the George Washington Bridge in the distance, ships and boats slowly going past: it made going to see the quintessential summer Shakespeare comedy that much more special. We're grateful we got to see this performance.

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