By William Shakespeare; Directed by Zach Morris
Produced by Food of Love Productions and Third Rail Projects
Off Broadway, Classic
Runs through 9.7.19
Café Fae, 827 Broadway
by Dan Rubins on 8.15.19
Caroline Amos and Alex J. Gould in Midsummer: A Banquet. Photo by Chad Batka.
BOTTOM LINE: Hungry for classy, fun Shakespeare? Have your fill at Midsummer: A Banquet.
Sometimes it’s best to write a review in the immediate afterglow of a show, while I still feel the effects of the prosecco that Puck served me and my fingers are still stained with the juice of the cherries that Oberon dropped off at my table. These are just samplings of the alimentary abundance at Midsummer: A Banquet, the multi-course meal of a play currently taking up sumptuous, seductive residence at Café Fae near Union Square. But it’s not just the food that makes this production remarkable: Midsummer: A Banquet delivers on the Shakespeare, too, in a graceful and never-dull rendering of a familiar play.
Sure, this may be a Midsummer Night’s Dream that prizes atmosphere above all else. Café Fae has been transformed into a sort of speakeasy with flora peeking out from behind pillars and shelves, ready to burst forth when the four lovers flee to the forest. Tables, chairs, and candle jars serve as much of the scenery and props—a world, designed by Jason Simms, born out of its restaurant setting. Settings of Shakespeare’s songs (from composer Sean Hagerty) that sound like golden oldie standards (and sometimes like Greek dance tunes) pass between actors, playing trumpets and even musical saws. The sense of smell, like olives and applewood smoke, not to mention taste, rarely plays such a significant role in theatrical storytelling.
Director Zach Morris, the Artistic Director of Third Rail Projects (creators of the immersive and Alice in Wonderland-inspired Then She Fell) adds litheness, muscle, and slither to the atmosphere in a staging that’s rambunctiously physical and borderline balletic. Couples trade partners while slow-dancing into each formation, Puck (Lauren F. Walker) magically undulates the enchanted Lysander (Alex J. Gould), and the lovers inflame their climactic quarrel into a quasi-gymnastics event.
Morris makes new discoveries about these characters, too. I’ve never been so aware of Lysander’s dismissive dislike of Helena (Adrienne Paquin) in the play’s first scenes: sharpening their relationship early on pays dividends once love-juiced Lysander falls head-over-heels for Helena later. The enchanting forest setting helps to integrate the fairy king Oberon’s lush poetry, delivered with clarity by Ryan Wuestewald, into the plot without losing momentum. Charles Osborne plays Bottom, the star of a faltering troupe of amateur actors, as a ridiculous, self-adoring ham, but this approach gives him an opportunity to transform Bottom’s usually comic awakening (after he’s been given an ass’ head and a night with the fairy queen) into a soberer scene: Bottom seems to respect himself in a less ostentatious, more reflective light.
Speaking of transformation, I enjoyed seeing all four of the lovers double-cast as Bottom’s woeful acting gang, especially the winning Caroline Amos trading in Hermia’s spark and snark for Snug’s stage-shy nasal congestion.
True, after all this excess—of movement, of mood, and of food—Pyramus and Thisbe, the raucous, mishap-laden play-within-a-play that’s usually Midsummer’s high point of hilarity, can’t quite top what’s come before. And sometimes the food itself can threaten to upstage the play, especially when Helena has to hand out bundles of cherries to the audience while holding a conversation with Lysander.
It’s less of a problem, though, that few of these food ambushes seem to emerge naturally from the play itself. (Those cherries, for example, have just been passed out when Demetrius (Joshua Gonzales) refers to Helena’s lips as “kissing cherries,” which is probably a stretch.) Demonstrating Midsummer’s foodiness isn’t really the goal here. Food of Love Productions, a collaborator with Third Rail Productions, also staged last year’s similarly constructed Shake and Bake: Love’s Labor’s Lost. Instead of finding out what Shakespeare has to say about food, Food of Love’s artistic director Victoria Rae Sook (also a fine Titania and an especially dynamic Hippolyta) seems more interested in what food has to say about Shakespeare.
What all that food service seems to tease out of the play is the forest’s generosity as a space to try on new attractions and new appearances. That’s what theater provides too, of course. After experiencing Café Fae’s hospitality and bounty, it’s hard not to feel a sense of gratitude: for the play, for the possibilities offered up in this dreamlike space, and also—why not?—for the prosecco.
(Midsummer: A Banquet plays at Café Fae, 827 Broadway, through September 7, 2019. The running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; and Saturdays at 5 and 9. Tickets are $75-$200 and are available at foodofloveproductions.com or by calling 866-811-4111.)
Midsummer: A Banquet is by William Shakespeare. Adapted by Zach Morris and Victoria Rae Sook. Directed and Choreographed by Zach Morris. Visual and Experience Design by Zach Morris. Food Design by Emilie Baltz. Set Design by Jason Simms. Costume Design by Tyler M. Holland. Lighting Design by Deborah Constantine. Sound Design and Original Music by Sean Hagerty. Stage Manager is Jack Cummins.
The cast is Caroline Amos, Joshua Gonzales, Alex J. Gould, Charles Osborne, Adrienne Paquin, Victoria Rae Sook, Lauren F. Walker, and Ryan Wuestewald.