One of the things I love about theatre is that it can happen almost anywhere. I’ve seen theatre spring up in church basements, in the woods, on street corners, in living rooms, even inside cars (LA’s “The Car Plays”). Here in New York (arguably theatre’s holy land), one finds widespread evidence of this adaptability. And so I found myself, this hot Thursday night, wending my way through a less-traveled residential area of Astoria, Queens to a non-descript brownstone, then heading down a flight of cement stairs that leads below street level, following along the side of a building, and finally emerging into a tiny backyard. It’s here that On the Square Productions offers its Queens debut: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The idea of re-purposing the space is somewhat more charming than the result. Risers set up along the back of the building support three small rows of chairs, with additional seating on the ground in front (all told, room for an audience of about thirty—maybe forty, tops). The garden, framed with plants and flowers, provides a decent enough playing space but for one glaring and insurmountable challenge: Just a few feet from down center, a tree of respectable size obscures much of the upstage area. The set, such as it is, is no more than an angled lattice wall upstage, a large Papasan chair ringed in twigs, bits of iron fence, a bench, two rope trellises and the existing flora. Still, one imagines scenic designer Zane Enloe turned slightly pale upon first seeing his “stage” with its dominant obstruction.
But Midsummer is a play that can overcome such obstacles provided it delivers whopping doses of whimsy, mischief, silliness, magic and hilarious confusion. Sadly, these are the production’s biggest shortcomings. For the most part, this Dream is plodding and joyless, in spite of several good performances by professional, accomplished actors.
It’s the prevailing wisdom in theatre that, unless you’re a Welles or a Gielgud or a Branagh, directing and appearing in the same production is a mistake. Most are urged to choose one or the other task—either to be among the cast, working on a role, or to be outside, watching and shepherding the production. It’s not quite a rule; it’s more like a widely accepted guideline. But for some reason, those who decide to exempt themselves are usually those least equipped for the dual task. They usually cast themselves in leading roles, making it all the more difficult to maintain an outside eye. Michael Swartz, who both directs and plays Puck, unfortunately misses much of what makes the play and his role fun. A Midsummer without fun? Why bother?
The tone for the evening is set with the appearance of reserved, mysterious, sad-countenanced Margaret Stutt who, playing two chords repeatedly on the accordion, sits on a bench and sings inaudibly. Later in the evening she looms on the sidelines, accompanying her accordion by striking single notes on a xylophone, never cracking a smile. Her compositions, indie pop in style, don’t quite mesh with Shakespeare’s lyrics, nor do they help convey meaning. These two problems—an overly serious tone and a failure to squeeze sense out of the words—are clouds that, under Swartz’s direction, hang over most of the evening.
The cast has strengths and weaknesses. As the lovers, Caitlin Kinsella (Helena), Austin Nixon (Demetrius), Michael Raver (Lysander) and Marnie Schulenburg (Hermia) make a good team. Though more dramatic than comedic, the men’s performances are truthful and connected. The ladies, who are funnier, manage to score some of the laughs in the text, to the great appreciation of the audience. Schulenburg has moments of comical hysteria, and Kinsella’s larger-than-life energy makes her fun to watch.
As Bottom, Zack Calhoon is charming, accessible, ticklishly funny, and conveys the text with the clarity his colleagues lack. Particularly fun is Calhoon’s Zenned-out bliss among the fairies. Kane Prestenback’s Flute is low-key but endearing. He then shines unpredictably as a wonderfully manic Thisbe in the play-within-a-play, until the end when, strangely, his performance becomes moving, dramatic and heartbreaking. The wrong choice, excellently executed. Fellow mechanicals Branson Reese (Snug) and Christine Sanders (Snout) slip into the trap of showing their comedic choices rather than possessing them (Sanders, in fact, seems to be in another play, with a vaudeville-level energy that’s far too big for the intimate setting), while Colleen Harris (Peter Quince) and Zoe Sjogerman (Starveling) are likeable but lacking in presence.
Rachel McPhee’s Titania is a delightful standout, her every word and gesture alive and solidly engaged. She’s ethereal, grand, sexy and silly—everything a Titania should be. The characterization is a study in sensuality and arch intensity, and McPhee lifts the tide whenever she’s onstage. Still, with better direction, more humor and less drama could have been mined, as this production needs every ounce of available funny.
Swartz’s Puck wears a gray tunic, and such is the color of his performance. Nowhere is the wild, madcap forest sprite who revels in mischief, delights in confusion and lives for mayhem. This character is like a grounded plane—designed to fly, but never approaching lift-off.
Chris White’s Oberon is similarly froth-free. He’s intense and serious, letting more comedic choices (bluster, petulance, comedic frustration, mischievous relish) elude him. It’s clear he, like most of his colleagues, is a good actor. But these performances lack levity, creating a tone that feels less like a frolic in the woods and more like a business meeting.
Lighting designer Christopher “Shadow” Edwards does a marvelous job with his challenging environment, using a combination of gelled work lights, lit torches, candles in glass orbs and tiny spots, all cleverly hidden among the plants.
Costumes by Aubrey Hansen seem somewhat random and not particularly fun. Modern day clothes appear to have been pulled from closets with little thought for coordination, and costumes fashioned for Puck and Oberon are drab and without detail, though her Maxfield Parrish-like dresses for the four supporting fairies work beautifully, and her all-white finale creates a refreshing stage picture.
At the end of Act One, an offstage company member cued the audience by initiating applause—one of the great faux pas in theatre (if you have to cue the audience, there’s something wrong). Conversely, two of the evening’s highlights (both of which got organic responses) were inadvertent ones: The first was the unscheduled appearance of two neighborhood urchins who peered down from street level, above, watching the proceedings from their neighboring yard and trying to figure out what was going on. The second was the familiar sound of an ice cream truck making its tuneful way along a nearby street just before Oberon’s line, “But who comes here?” Now that’s light-hearted fun.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs July 8 – 17, 2010 at Astoria Garden, 31-30 44th Street, Astoria, NY, 11103. Information can be found at http://www.onthesquareproductions.com/.