Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an enchantment. When a feuding fairy king and queen, a mischievous sprite, mismatched lovers, and a farcical, amateur acting company share the stage, ardor, revenge, deception, whimsy and magic reign.
Any director must helm all this with clear point of view, however, or chaos ensues. Unfortunately, Lear deBessonet apparently has none. The four factions – fairyland, Athens’ nobles, youthful, romantic obsession, and vaudevillian shenanigans – bump against each other without cohesion. Though David Rockwell’s versatile, Arthur Rackhamish fantasy set (love the slide), and Clint Ramos’s extravagantly original costumes (inspired by, among others, Carmen Miranda, Siegfried or Roy, Esther Williams, and The Pope) are appealing, they signify nothing without empathy for the players.
Annaleigh Ashford (Helena) and Alex Hernandez (Demetrius)
For the record, I take no issue with updating the play’s look or adding punctuating, contemporary music – here, zydeco, r & b, rock, and country often sung by the flat out terrific Marcelle Davies-Lashley. (Original Music/Music Supervisor Justin Levine.) Nor, despite its getting a bit tired, do I object to the company’s goofy, signature dance number at the end.
Synopsis: Creating an atmosphere of romance, Theseus, The Duke of Athens (Bhavesh Patel) is about to wed Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (De’Adre Aziza). Hermia (Shalita Grant) and Lysander (Kyle Beltran) are in love, but the girl’s father Egeus (David Manis) insists she marry Demetrius (Alex Hernandez) who is, in turn, pursued by Helena (Annaleigh Ashford). The four young people find themselves in the Fairy Wood, some to flee, others plying suit.
Kristine Nielson (Robin/Puck) and Richard Poe (Oberon) watch Shalita Grant (Hermia) and Alex Hernandez (Demetrius)
Titania, Queen of the Fairies (Phylicia Rashad) is at odds with husband Oberon (Richard Poe) over the changeling boy she’s adopted (adorable Benjamin Ye who giggles on cue). Oberon enlists Robin Goodfellow/Puck (Kristine Nielson), to bewitch his errant wife into falling in love with the next creature she sees. That “creature” turns out to be Nick Bottom, the weaver (Danny Burstein), in the wood to rehearse a play for the wedding festivities. Robin famously changes Titania’s unwitting swain into an ass.
Ersatz play-within-the-play thespians include Peter Quince (Robert Joy), bellows mender Francis Flute (Jeff Hiller), Snout the tinker (Patrena Murray), Snug the joiner (Austin Durant) and tailor Robin Starveling, (Joe Tapper).
Patrena Murray (Snout), Robert Joy (Peter Quince), Jeff Hiller (Frances Flute), and Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom)
Also commanded to cast a spell on Dimitrius in order to bring together he and Helena, Robin mistakenly bewitches Lysander who then forsakes Hermia for Helena further complicating the caucus race.
To my mind, there are two unfathomable casting errors. The first is Kristine Nielson as a leaden Robin Goodfellow who clumps around the stage, humorlessly mugs in the yuk-yuk vein and adds not an ounce of lightheartness. The second, nightshirt-wearing fairies ranging, I’d conjecture, from 65-85 years-old who literally seem to have trouble getting up and down stairs to the proscenium. While chronological age is irrelevant, difficulty getting about is not, especially for fairies.
Richard Poe (Oberon) and Kristine Nielson (Robin/Puck)
Hearing audience members murmur that perhaps capable Shakespearean actors were few in New York come summer confirmed that my reservations about the cast were not simply from over exposure. And no, I don’t believe one has to be British. This is compounded by deBessonet’s lack of attention to characterization.
Annaleigh Ashford of whom I’m a fan, is hit or miss as Helena. Though a crowd-pleaser and often theatrically funny (especially physically), unedited excess finds her at last, just clownish. Both Ashford and Shalita Grant (Hermia) are pushed to unrestrained screeching which deBessonet appears to find amusing. The usually fine Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom) doesn’t seem to be having enough fun with the role. Kyle Beltran (Lysander) is earnest and clear. Among yeoman actors, Jeff Hiller (Frances Flute) enters querulous and plays Thisbe with evocative glee.
The stage is well and fully used as are Delacorte aisles.
An outdoor Midsummer is in itself a treat and this one was not without its pleasures. I wonder whether the audience holds The Public Theater to less high standards in Central Park.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Phylicia Rashad (Titania) and Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom)
First, necessarily, comments on the controversy: Theater is a living, breathing art form. It has always reflected and reacted to its time. Currently, LGBT and apocalyptic themes are joined by a proliferation of stories with immigrant, and Middle East discourse/illumination. Religious freedom, women’s rights and segregation have ruled the stage in waves.
As you’ve undoubtedly heard, in this, the Public Theater’s current iteration of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the central character is meant to physically resemble Donald Trump and his wife to sound like Melania. Why not?! The classic drama has been produced with Caesar portrayed as Mussolini in Orson Welles’ anti-fascist version, an unnamed African dictator for that of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and, in 2012, President Obama at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. None of these interpretations provoked protests. That original text resonates in each rendition is sufficient reason to restage the piece.
Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere, Elizabeth Marvel
Oscar Eustis, Artistic Director of The Public Theater, chose Caesar for relevance and, in his own words, as “a warning parable.” This examination of how far a people may go to protect democracy from a charismatic demagogue clearly shows radical consequences of anarchistic violence rather than advocating it. A staff driven by greed and personal advancement (sound familiar?) gets just desserts. Brutus is the only patriotic, if misguided conspirator, a fact acknowledged but not celebrated. Fatalism sweeps the stage like sirocco. Chaos ensues.
The play itself is problematic. While much proves as lively as it is timeless – “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” is from bona fied text (the audience laughs), a long, dense scene in which Brutus and Cassius disagree on plans could put anyone to sleep. Attention dips for a time after Marc Antony’s spectacular death bed (here, a gurney) oration.
Corey Stoll and John Douglas Thompson; Nikki M. James and Corey Stoll
Julius Caesar (Gregg Henry, with inadequate bombastic presence) greets adoring Rome with wife Calpurnia (Tina Benko, palpably seductive; great Slavic accent) preening by his side. At one point, he bats her away, a gesture that could easily have been played in reverse had the director wanted to be more partisan. Though he refuses a crown, it’s obvious Caesar’s fingers itch.
Fearing the loss of democracy, members of The Senate plot assassination at the instigation of Brutus (Corey Stoll, who underplays so much, it feels like we’re watching a disgruntled bureaucrat, not a soldier or statesman.) “He scorns the base degrees by which he did ascend,” Brutus declares of Caesar. (Currently applicable?)
Of this bunch, Teagle F. Bougere’s Casca is solidly credible and John Douglas Thompson (Cassius) provides one of two masterful characterizations every time he’s onstage. Thompson is vital, impassioned; his voice deep and invested, phrasing accessible yet poetic, presence shimmers with power. A soldier to his toes.
Corey Stoll and The Company
Conspirators come and go at Brutus’s home prompting questioning concern by his wife Portia (an excellent Nikki M. James) who tries unsuccessfully to seduce her husband into telling her what’s going on. Calpurnia almost has better luck when, fearing the portent of a dream, she attempts to get Caesar to blow off the Senate in favor of cavorting with her, initially in a gold bathtub (inspired). With convincing reinterpretation Decius (Eisa Davis) changes his mind back, however. It’s here we first meet Marc Antony (Elizabeth Marvel), seemingly drunk and wearing shades (go figure), arrive to accompany her leader to the gathering.
You know the rest. Caesar is stabbed multiple times – here, first in the back, then physically pulled over the top of a podium to the floor and pierced by all. Brutus is the last and apparently most reticent, appearing directly after, glazed as a deer in headlights. A couple of actors have difficulty getting daggers out of pockets. One participant photographs the body on a Smart Phone.
Antony is devastated. “She” secures permission to address the public after Brutus’s brief announcement of Caesar’s death. (Pronouns change when applicable.) Marvel, a second terrific performance, looks and sounds like Sissy Spacek replete with Texas accent. The actress roils then erupts. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” One of Shakespeare’s great Machiavellian speeches, it sounds as if in support of Brutus & Co while denouncing them with honeyed words, inciting the crowd. Nuanced writing moves seamlessly from defeat to empowerment to challenge. Marvel wonderfully emotes from her gut.
Elizabeth Marvel and The Company
The rest is demonstrations, Civil War, firing squads, and suicides. Battles are well staged. With civilians calling out, then running on stage from all over the audience, energy high and movement constant, violent pandemonium is evoked despite lack of much choreographed fighting. (NYC sirens often add.) Political and psychological parallels are many. Alas, the show’s incredibly short run doesn’t allow more of you to find them for yourselves.
Director Oscar Eustis moves his large cast with strategic skill immersing the audience, manipulating tension, creating sweep. Two-handers create palpable intimacy. Brutus and his boy Lucilius (Tyler La Marr) are as profoundly personal as he and Cassius or he and Portia. When laughter rises from the bleachers out of recognition, it fades to allow the production to continue.
David Rockwell’s Set looks as if it was designed by committee members each of whom stuck to his own vision, which, judging by his organization’s current ubiquity, may be the case. Too many styles deny the play gravitas as well as cohesion. Additionally, while a poster-plastered, graffiti-filled wall supporting a large number of floral tributes is timely and the Senate chamber looks splendid, inside Brutus’ tent resembles a lady’s sewing room and various Photoshopped panels evoke high school productions. Oh, and there’s the giant eye, a representation of Big Brother?
Most of Paul Tazewell’s contemporary, non-distracting Costume Design works well, though street cops without weapons or communication equipment become lite police. (His Tactical Squad is frighteningly well outfitted.)
Jessica Paz deserves double call out for Sound Design. Not only does she conjure vociferous mobs and not so distant violence, but every player speaking from the audience (and there are many) is distinctly heard. Original Music and Soundscapes by Bray Poor are cinematic.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Greg Henry and The Company
Free Shakespeare in the Park/ The Public Theater presents Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare Directed by Oscar Eustis The Public Theater In the park: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – July 11-August 13, 2017
Attesting to its timeless appeal, the 1936 Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklós László had been made into two Hollywood films – The Shop Around the Corner and The Good Old Summertime – before this 1963 musical saw the light. Nor did that end reinterpretation, as the next generation grinned through You’ve Got Mail.
The Joe Masterhoff/Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick version is a hand-painted valentine, a shaken snow globe, a waltz. As written, the piece has universal appeal. Its book is sympathetic and unfussy, music and lyrics original and adroit. Once again numbers like “Sounds While Selling” in which we hear pieces of conversation from three customers with three salespeople:
1st WOMAN: I would like to see a…/KODALY:…face like yours…/2nd WOMAN: …cracked…/SIPOS:…but we carry…/1st WOMAN:Do you have a cream for…/2nd WOMAN:…very red…and “Vanilla Ice Cream,” which swings back and forth from the heroine’s astonishment at suddenly finding her nemesis captivating and writing to her lonely hearts “pen pal,” make me marvel the authors’ accomplishment. Not to mention resonant ballads and clever comedic numbers.
Zachary Levi and Michael McGrath
The show has warmth, humor, love, distinctive characters, misunderstanding, adultery, Christmas, and a happy ending, several really. What more could one want? It’s sentimental but not saccharine. I’m a longtime fan.
Here, as in the original, our story unfolds at Maraczek’s Parfumerie in Budapest, Hungary. Set Designer David Rockwell imagines the establishment as a charming, deftly detailed dolls’ house. The set morphs beautiflly. Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings) runs a cheerfully tight ship. The shop is managed by 30-something everyman Georg Nowack (Zachary Levi) and staffed by timid, Ladislav Sipos (Michael McGrath), womanizer Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel), single-too-long Ilona Ritter (Jane Krakowski), and delivery boy Arpad Laslo (Nicholas Barasch). Kodaly and Ritter are having a clandestine affair about which everyone is aware.
Into this happy family comes Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti) desperate for a job. Though refused a position, the young woman whips off her hat and sells an item about which the proprietor is enthusiastic, but which Nowack considers a mistake. She’s hired. Balash and Nowack are now at loggerheads, a self perpetuating situation.
Having seen at least one of this story’s iterations, you must know that the eventual couple are unknowingly writing one another letters through a lonely hearts club. Both are completely smitten. An eventual attempt to meet evokes an usually touching and comic scenario during which he finds out the identity of his inamorata. Now what? Meanwhile, Kodaly’s latest betrayal of Ilona upsets the apple cart at work in ways no one anticipated.
Gavin Creek and Jane Krakowski
In order for any production to be successful, the show’s protagonists must seem unconscious of what the audience knows. Actors must play “straight,” innocent, or as my companion this evening succinctly suggested, they must “discover” in front of us. This, unfortunately, largely fails to happen.
Scott Ellis’s Direction broadcasts every emotion. Comedy arrives in a succession akin to – I’m about to be funny, look I’m being funny, wait – did you get that? There are broad ba-dump-dump looks and gestures appropriate to vaudeville. Moments of revelation ignore adjustment, confusion, and surprise in favor of being slick. Anger is glossed over. No one thinks or feels, they just move on.
Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi
Michael McGrath (Sipos) does a nice, subdued, early Nathan Lane-ish job, managing to be gentle and credible. Gavin Creel (Kodaly), the single actor for whom exaggeration is appropriate, is at the same time flamboyant and precise, never going for the yuks.
Jane Krakowski’s Ilona is all sex all the time. A theatrical fanny has not had so much work out since Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. This is supposed to be a girl possessed, neither naively kittenish, nor a vixen. When her turnabout occurs, we don’t buy it. Krakowski is a fine singer and usually a much better comedienne.
Zachary Levi (Nowack) seems to have had a revelation between Acts I and II. In Act I, he’s self-conscious and preening. In Act II, the actor suddenly becomes boyish and believable. “She Loves Me” is infectiously exuberant.
The biggest disappointment is Laura Benanti. At no time is the role of Amalia Balash plumbed for anything but surface expression. Benanti has an extraordinary voice which here, alas, is too often both loudly unfitting to a moment and unbecoming.
Re Warren Carlyle’s Choreography: Though Kodaly’s magnetism is amusingly showcased during a dance duet that features Krakowski’s skillful split (cue applause), that same move has no more business in “I Resolve”- her swearing off that kind of relationship – than do leg extensions through a highly slit skirt she later, aptly rebuttons. The once wry scenario at Cafe Imperiale (bravo Headwaiter Peter Bartlett), is now something out of a Marx Brothers script.
Tonight’s audience admittedly seems unaware of these issues. If you’ve never seen this delicious piece, perhaps you will be as well.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi
Roundabout Theatre Company presents She Loves Me Book-Joe Masterhoff; Music-Jerry Bock; Lyrics- Sheldon Harnick Directed by Scott Ellis Studio 54 254 West 54th Street Through June 12, 2016