Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tuesday Night in Chelsea: The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective presents "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on Pier 64 at Hudson River Park

Tonight we went to the premiere of a charming production of a Woodstock-era A Midsummer Night's Dream imaginatively staged at a gorgeous space at the foot of Pier 64 by The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective under the direction of Steven Carl McCasland.
Actually, we think the space is part of Pier 63, and it was probably the most intimate setting we've ever seen for outdoor Shakespeare since a performance of Dream done by BACA (Brooklyn Arts and Cultural Association) in July 1970 in a corner of Prospect Park's Wollman Rink. Here the show was presented at Meg Webster's Stonefield, a sculpture installation of boulders selected for their special shapes and unusual sculptural qualities.
Some of the boulders are very colorful, some are concave, some craggy, one is very tall, another shaped somewhat like a boat, all are arranged to show their unique characteristics and individuality. Most of the audience sat on some of the large stones as the cast enacted the familiar story -- probably the classic summer outdoor Shakespeare show, which we've seen about eight times in various parks already -- around them.
We were close to the dreamy-at-dusk Hudson River, and sunset and the surroundings made the magic and theme of Midsummer Night's Dream come alive in a different way than we'd ever seen the play done before.
In addition to being intimate, the Beautiful Soup's Dream also moved quickly. At about 75 minutes, they'd obviously cut out decent chunks of Shakespeare's text, but we couldn't tell, despite what is (or should be) our familiarity with the text.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and the only difficulties we had were the times, not often, when a cast member was simply too far away from the boulder where we sat for the sound to carry clearly amid all the noise of the pier and Twelfth Avenue.
We'd seen other nontraditional gender casting in the past, as in the Pulse Ensemble's having Oberon and Titania as two powerful gay men earlier this summer, but we'd never seen Bottom played by a woman before watching Anne Richmond's very funny turn as the weaver-turned-donkey.
Aside from the slapstick, her befuddlement and naivete exude a sweetness, both in her rehearsals for and performances in the mechanicals' play within a play and Bottoms' scenes with the lovestruck Titania (a flighty, passionate Rebecca De Ornelas).
Isaiah Tanenbaum played a nicely hippie-ish droll Puck in a dungaree jacket over an I ♥ NEW YORK t-shirt (if we're talking Woodstock 1969, that mid-70s symbol's actually an anachronism),
and the four young lovers all had great comic timing and lots of passion, the two qualities they need most. Emily Floyd plays Helena as a young woman so used to being overlooked that she's most hilarious in her consternation at suddenly being the love object of two guys. Patrick Shane's Lysander is charismatic and edgily dynamic although the character is a bit more Grease than Hair).
Hermia (Mallory Berlin) is a bit haughty and humorously contrary, as when she can turn on a dime from expressing her extreme sexual longing for Lysander to practically ordering him to "to lie yet further off" when the runaway couple first sleep in the woods. As Demetrius, Jordan Tierney is winningly nerdy, petulant, and the kind of pain in the neck guy you end up liking; he's a good foil for the other three young people.
The working class actors who perform the unintentionally laughable melodrama Pyramus and Thisbe to celebrate the multiple weddings at Dream's end are, in addition to Bottom, a colorful bunch of burnouts and freaks. Led by the most staid of the bunch, Peter Quince (Charles Baker, who exuded shabby dignity in last year's Hudson Warehouse production of Taming of the Shrew, the amateur thespians include David Marx as Tom Snout, appropriately blockheaded as he plays a wall; an adorably shy but game Salvatore Casto as a Snug the Joiner managing to eke out his roars as the play's supposedly fearsome lion;
Leslie Crincoli as the flustered good trouper Robin Starveling, holding her lantern to be the moonshine; and the winning Dom Crincoli, who moves from his female impersonation as Francis Flute playing Thisbe to strap on his guitar and serve as the play's balladeer.
We actually didn't realize until we saw the credits that Samantha Mercado-Tudda and Dennis Del Bene who exuded such dignity and sophistication as the regal Hippolyte and Theseus were the same actors playing the flighty (literally) fairies Mustardseed and Cobweb.
Dennis Del Bene, in his no-nonsense business suit, played Egeus as a petty tyrant who's smart enough to know when to bend. And we liked Frank Ugochukwu's thoughtful and sexy interpretation of Oberon, king of the fairies, both matched his queen Titania's less cerebral and more impulsive passions but who managed to step back, and along with Puck, seemed to join the audience -- an enthusiastic group who just about fit in the "theater" of the Stonefield space (though clearly some enchanted passersby on foot and bike stop and stood on the periphery to stay to the end).
Director Steven Carl McCasland, artistic director of the Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, managed to create an economical, warm Midsummer Night's Dream whose virtues were evident on the first night of performances. The next show is on Thursday at 7 p.m., and then at the same time on Tuesday, August 21; Thursday, August 23; Friday, August 24; and finally, on Saturday August 25 at both 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.
As the troupe's website notes,
Exploring classics and re-visiting musicals that never reached their pinnacle, The Soup chooses a charitable organization whose mission matches the themes of the show at end. The profits made at the box office, along with donations collected by actors after each performance, are donated to that charity. With four to five shows a year, The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective continues to be an active force in community growth.
We're very grateful we got to see tonight's show.

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