Last Train to Shakespeare

William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Directed by Christian Amato
The Theater Project
September 20-28, 2013 (Closed)
The Players Theater, MacDougal Street, NYC

Christian Amato's direction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream displays that he posses a comedic theatrical maturity far beyond what one might expect for a twenty-five year old director. Mr. Amato so accurately channeled the spirit of the 70's theater of John Vaccaro, Ron Tavel, and Charles Ludlum that upon leaving the theater I expected to be transported back to that raucous and innovative era, one in which the energy of The Village reflected the hoopla we were witnessing on stage. [Need I say I quickly woke up to the disappointment that it was 2013, and The Village and the world were now radically different.] Mr. Amato in his hilarious production, has recreated anew and in a contemporary context that which made devoted audiences keep returning for more works by the creators of the “ridiculous” mode in New York theater. 

If the reader needs a refresher on the plot of his classic, it would be best to refer to Wikipedia, since this is a convoluted comic love story full of magic and many reversals which would require three full pages to detail. But in short, A loves B, B loves C, and C wants D, a frustrating situation which gets compounded when the king and queen of the Fairyland get involved because they are having a spat of their own. These two immortals make a mess of the whole thing -- but in the end all gets resolved. Shakespeare set his play in a realm of magic in a mythical Greece, whereas Mr. Amato's version takes place in a more or less contemporary New York, often on the platform of the A train which goes to Inwood on one side of the track and Athens on the other. 

Drawing upon his theatrical forbearers and with ample helpings of vaudeville, burlesque humor, obvious trashy drag, as well as classic Shakespearian sensibility, Mr. Amato and his an energized ensemble fashioned an astoundingly fresh and entertaining production of what in other hands could have been just another rendition of a well-trod play. The eleven actors execute their parts in a manner which I would call pristine in that such comic performances were that: hilarious and not derivative of stand-up, or the weak-kneed "cute" of sitcoms -- no pretense, just great character humor. 

In this production, one needs to put aside standard assignment of "gender" and just watch the play. The character of Lysander is played by the talented Bridget Dunigan, period, no explanation provided or needed. Both Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and Titania, Queen of the Fairies are uproariously played by Dominic Sellers, in sharply different styles "Jersey Shore" drag. 

Mr. Amato, as counterweights in a sea of the ridiculous, has several characters play their roles "straight." Charlotte Pines gives a fine and traditional performance as Helena pining for her Demetrius. Megan Abell as Hermia, provides a measured straight performance while moving about in a sea of the ridiculous. When Jonathan Bethea is portraying Theseus (Duke of Athens), he is too gives a skilled traditional reading of the character as does Tyler Nye when playing Egeus (father of Hermia). When Jonathan Bethea doubles as Oberon, King of the Fairies, he crosses over to another world in which he recites his lines with natural African-American speech, bringing unexpected rhythms and intonations to what have become well-worn Shakespearian speeches. When Tyler Nye doubles as Quince, who is organizing a play (within the play) to be performed by an ultra-amateur group of craftsmen, he too crosses over into the ridiculous as a tentative self-conscious goofus. Fully ridiculous is Claron Hayden who portrays Demetrius as a smooth hipster. His hypnotic "hip" body language is as agile as a ballet dancer, and his texting on his phone at inappropriate moments served as a fine comment on contemporary life.

One of the classic set pieces of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the amateur craftsmen characters rendering of "the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe," which is a rudimentary Romeo and Juliet story. Most have seen this piece performed repeatedly but never with the comic panache, verve and hilarity that Mr. Amato and his company perform it. Bottom, the weaver (Brianna Hurley), wants to do three parts at the same time but must settle on the part of Pyramus, which she portrays like a Judy Holliday on steroids. Stephanie Smith playing Flute, the bellows-mender, is over-the-top hilarious as Thisbe. She speaks each line in a halting monotonal falsetto while confusedly fumbling to kill herself and she had me laughing so hard I catching for breath. Eric Fletch played Snout, the tinker (he also doubled as the fairy sprite Puck). His part was to portray the wall which separated the lovers. Portraying an ill-at-ease and blank-faced amateur, he recited his lines with a thick Russian accent. Jaime Swartz, portrays Snug, the joiner acts as the lion in the play. She dramatically recites how vicious she will be when devouring Pyramus, then roars pathetically. Quince, the carpenter (Tyler Nye), the organizer of this little play, nervously recites the play’s prologue as if it was an announcement prior to a PTA presentation. 

All of Shakespeare’s songs, originally written in about 1590, are sung to music by Eric Fletcher. The tunes have Grease-like and disco settings. The ancient lyrics fit, and these musical interludes enhance the high spirits of the overall production.

As ridiculous as some of the characterizations were, and the outlandish lengths the action often took, Mr. Amato still retained the spirit of Shakespeare's original. I look forward to The Theater Project's forthcoming production of Much Ado About Nothing, and any other offerings from this exciting and innovative theater company. - Jay Reisberg

Photo: Kelly Marsh/The Theater Project

jay-reisberg-photo

Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.

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