A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Austin Blunk, Courtney McGowan, & Vanessa Morosco; photo: Jerry Dalia

This staple of outdoor summer stages—Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play—is on view in a delightful production from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 30. STNJ’s annual outdoor productions are performed in the beautiful Greek amphitheatre of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Florham Park, N.J. (take cushions).

STNJ artistic director Bonnie Monte directed the production, and she must have had a very precise idea in mind, because she served as the set and costume designer as well, inspired perhaps by Shakespeare’s own words in the play:

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream,
past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream - 2

Felix Mayes; photo: Jerry Dalia

The sets on the outdoor stage are always fairly simple, but the costumes were knock-your-socks off. Creative recycling was the theme, with iridescent CD’s forming a glittering backdrop for both the forest outside Athens—the fairy world—and a scaly cape for fairy queen Titania. Puck was gleefully porcupinish with headgear and epaulets sprouting colorful chopsticks? pens? A bathtub was filled with wine corks. More than thirty individuals and families received recognition in the program for aid in collecting the hundreds of “items of refuse” that went into the production. This made sense, actually, fairies being notorious pilferers.

We went to a matinee where numerous children were in the audience—an outdoor theater is one venue where sitting still and silent in your seat is not an absolute requirement, particularly for a comedy. Some of the complicated plot—the two sets of characters, the two sets of lovers, the play-within-a-play—may have been difficult for the youngest audience members to follow precisely, but there was such effective physical comedy and so many hilarious touches, like the performance of Ian Hersey as the ass, Bottom, they stuck with it happily.

The cast had many suitably antic performances, including the aforementioned Hersey and Felix Mayes as Puck, Courtney McGowen as Lion, Vanessa Morosco as Titania, and all of the fancifully costumed fairies.

STNJ produces an excellent KnowTheShow guide. Call box office for tickets (973-408-5600) or email: BoxOffice@ShakespeareNJ.org

The Bungler

The Bungler, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Kevin Isola & James Michael Reilly; photo by Jerry Dalia

Molière’s classic, but infrequently produced comedy about a lovelorn swain and his wily servant premiered July 8 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and is on stage through July 30. The theater’s promotion promises that “if laughter is good medicine, then this show will cure all ills,” and the production directed by Brian B. Crowe leaves the audience well-healed.

Adhering to the strict requirements and principles of French Neoclassicism, Molière’s first full-length play has a single plot that takes place in one setting, in a compressed time span. His characters reflect the conventions of their class (the principle of decorum) and their actions and attitudes are real, probable, and (mostly) believable (the principle of verisimilitude). Molière stretches those rigid rules, established by the redoubtable Cardinal Richelieu, as much as he can through the introduction of elements of Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Many of The Bungler’s characters typify that tradition.

In Messina, Sicily, the young Lélie (played by Aaron McDaniel) falls for a servant, a ravishing gypsy girl (Sophia Blum). Upper-class, but without financial prospects, he must contrive a way to free her from her curmudgeonly master (Eric Hoffman). Alas, Lélie is not very bright, and relies on his valet Mascarille (a classic harlequin, played by Kevin Isola) to develop some ingenious plan. Complicating the valet’s stratagems are a formidable romantic rival (Sam Ashdown), Lélie’s upstanding father (Drew Dix), a money lender who could help out, wants to, then . . . (James Michael Reilly), and his glamorous daughter (Devin Conway).

All of these fine players (and others) eventually figure in Mascarille’s clever stratagems, none of which are understood by Lélie, who at every turn foils certain victory. Although there is only one plot in the play (as required by Cardinal Richelieu’s rules), Molière finds ever-more imaginative ways to set up and carry out the joke, which left the audience laughing uproariously in both anticipation and execution.

Director Crowe keeps the action moving, thanks to his skilled players’ exquisite timing and aided greatly by the many talents of Isola as Mascarille for both physical comedy and the on-point delivery of a line. McDaniel as Lélie, the perpetually confused yet inexplicably confident suitor, is a picture of bafflement. The set design by Dick Block is like a trip to the candy store, and Paul Canada’s costumes are beyond beautiful.

The Bungler, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Sophia Blum, Kevin Isola, & Aaron McDaniel; photo: Jerry Dalia

The STNJ used a translation of The Bungler by Richard Wilbur, the nation’s second poet laureate. Wilbur has won numerous awards for his translations, as well as his own work. The brilliance of his achievement is evidenced by the fact that, although the dialog

proceeds in couplets throughout, this device never becomes tiresome. Instead, it repeatedly delights with its freshness.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey produces an excellent know-the-show guide for each production. Performances are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

On Stage: The Merchant of Venice

Merchant of Venice

Rachel Towne as Nerissa (left) & Melissa Miller as Portia; photo: Jerry Dalia.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens its 2017 season with Shakespeare’s dark comedy, The Merchant of Venice, about, as the theater describes it “A money-obsessed, patriarchal, dysfunctional society where wealth bestows power; one in which women cannot determine their own fate, and one marked by religious and racial prejudice.” Hmm. This production, which opened Saturday night, May 20, runs through June 4, and is directed by award-winning actor Robert Cuccioli.

Perhaps this play is not often performed because modern playgoers (and producers) are uncomfortable with its blatant anti-Semitism. Such views persisted in England, of course, through the eras of Dickens, Disraeli, Holocaust denial, and may even be again on the rise. It’s talking about them that’s so uncomfortable. Cuccioli, the cast, and the theater deserve praise for not soft-pedaling the ugliness of racial hatred. Shylock (Andrew Weems) is as intransigent in his demands as his foes expect him to be.

The gist of the story, you may recall, is that prominent Venetian merchant Antonio (Brent Harris), loans his friend Bassanio (John Keabler) money so he can woo the estimable Portia (Melissa Miller). Convinced several of his ships will soon arrive and refill his coffers, Antonio borrows the needed sum from his old adversary, Shylock, and agrees to the whimsical idea that, if he cannot repay the debt, he’ll let the Jew take a pound of his flesh.

When Antonio’s ships are lost, Shylock invokes that clause. Portia, disguised as a learned young judge, argues the case to save Antonio (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath”) , aided by her maidservant Nerissa (Rachel Towne), her pretended law clerk.

That part of the story has all the makings of tragedy, certainly high drama. The comedy comes from the suitors for Portia’s hand, made to choose among caskets of gold, silver, and lead, only one of which holds her portrait and her promise to marry. With great shows of manly confidence, they uniformly guess wrong, until Bassanio . . . you can guess the rest. Portia and Nerissa tease their men mercilessly, but not so frivolously as to form too great a contrast with the blacker heart of the play, the downfall of Shylock.

Weems, Harris, and Miller give especially strong and moving performances. However, the entire cast does an admirable job keeping the action going and creating interesting, compelling characters. They’re believably outraged at Shylock and charmed by Portia and Nerissa. In addition to those named, the cast includes Ademide Akintilo, Amaia Arana, Jeffrey M. Bender (his Prince of Arragon is priceless), Byron Clohessy, Ian Gould, Robert S. Gregory, Jay Leibowitz, Anthony Michael Martinez, Joe Penczak,  and Tug Rice.

Production credits to Brian Ruggaber (excellent set design); Käri B. Bentson (sound), Michael Giannitti (lighting); Candida Nichols (lovely 1900-ish costumes); and Alison Cote (production stage manager).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

A Child’s Christmas in Wales

A Child's Christmas in Wales

John Ahlin & Greg Jackson; photo: Jerry Dalia.

Every Christmas Eve our family reads out loud this beautiful Dylan Thomas paean to the season, so I was excited to see the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production (opening night 12/3, through 1/1). Several different stagings of this heartwarming story are now on stage in the New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia area.

STNJ’s is the early 1980’s musical adaptation by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell, which the theater has produced three times previously. Under the direction of Joseph Discher and musical director Robert Long, the large cast plays multiple roles, keeps the story flowing, and the music and laughs coming.

Set in Thomas’s home town of Swansea, Wales, in the early 1900s when the author was a young boy, the story is simultaneously a celebration of small town childhood, family, and the season’s simple delights. However, the events of the play are different from those of Thomas’s original. No firefighting with snowballs in Mr. Prothero’s parlor, no caroling with a ghostly ancient, no face-off with a sugarfagged contemporary.

Instead, new scenes are created. When Dylan’s mother incinerates the Christmas turkey in her new gas oven, Auntie Bessie miraculously produces a turkey dinner from the hotel (available because of the timely cancellation of a Christmas party that one suspects was also Auntie Bessie’s doing). Brooks and Mitchell wrote new characters and many new lines to fit their expanded story and occasionally tried to replicate Thomas’s lyricism. I wish they hadn’t. “Thomas lite” is risky.

The aunts—Auntie Bessie (played by Tess Ammerman), Auntie Nelllie (Clemmie Evans), Auntie Hannah (Alison Weller), and Auntie Elieri (Carey Van Driest) are charming, with great singing voices. And Uncle Gwyn (John Ahlin), dour Uncle Tudyr (Patrick Toon), and relentlessly political Uncle Glyn (Andy Paterson) are perfect comic types. Dylan’s mother (Tina Stafford) is harried and musical, and his father (Peter Simon Hilton) delivers some of the poet’s most memorable lines.

Greg Jackson has a difficult challenge, playing both the adult and youthful Dylan. As an adult reminiscing about Christmases past, he’s great, but he rarely seems like a child. Most kids are perpetual motion machines. It doesn’t do to have him stand around, attentively listening while adults talk. He could sit, scratch his elbow, pull up his socks, retie his shoes, look distracted. When he’s with his pals—all also played by adults—Jim (Thomas Daniels), Jack (Julian Blake Gordon), and Tom (Seamus Mulcahy), and they are larking about, he’s perfectly believable. Jackson is a fine actor whom I’ve admired in other STNJ plays, so this casting or direction is somehow off.

That aside, the audience loved this production! While the Brooks/Mitchell play is both more and less than Thomas’s lyrical language and indelible images, you just have to go with it. It isn’t a production for the head, but for the heart, and I found myself smiling and laughing along, and I hope you will too.

For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the box office online. (Free tickets for kids 18 and younger.)

Exit the King

Exit the King

Kristie Dale Sanders & Brent Harris. Photo: Jerry Dalia

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey offers a rare opportunity to see absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco’s thought-provoking play Exit the King, which opened August 19. According to production director and STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, the play is subject to many interpretations, and “has the power to unfold a different tale and different meaning for each and every audience member.”

Evidence of the play’s myriad layers emerged in a talk-back, where audience members variously interpreted it as political allegory, an echo of Lear, a mythic parable, a palliative to the grievously afflicted, a tragi-comedy, and so on. Whatever the interpretation, the play and this production give audiences much to think about.

Born in Romania to French and Romanian parents, Ionesco was a master of theater of the absurd, which he preferred to call Theater of Derision. But Exit the King is surprisingly tender, dealing as it does with death and its inevitability and the tension between the fight to live (at all costs) and acceptance (not without costs of its own).

The 400-year-old King is dying. His first wife Marguerite wants him to accept death and the disintegration of his kingdom. His current wife, Marie, wants him to fight on. Will he? Can he? Ionesco wrote this play in 1962, but the questions he raises about sustaining life—or not—and the illusion of choice in the matter are even more salient today.

Critic Martin Esslin, who coined the term “theater of the absurd,” said its purpose is to force each member of the audience “to solve the riddle he is confronted with.” Monte has remained true to this ideal, refusing to overlay any particular conclusion. Ionesco himself characterized the play as “an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying.” He deployed his frequent character Berenger in the role of the King to underscore the play’s “everyman” theme.

Though Ionesco says the play is 90 minutes long (as is the STNJ production), the script contains more than three hours’ content. Monte has pared it by more than half, accepting Ionesco’s own suggested deletions and (thankfully) eliminating a great many redundancies. The six-member cast is on stage for almost all of that period, reacting, interacting, so that their ultimate absence is all the more powerful. Most of the consistently interesting staging is the STNJ’s own conception, because the playwright’s directions are sparse and, where they exist, impossible.  Monte gave “The King ages 1400 years” as an example.

The exemplary cast is Brent Harris as Berenger The First (The King); Marion Adler as the old Queen Marguerite; Jesmille Darbouze as the new Queen Marie; Jon Barker as the Guard; Kristie Dale Sanders as the maid; and Greg Watanabe as the doctor. Brittany Vasta has designed a set like a wedge plucked from a gothic abbey.

STNJ has prepared an excellent “Know the Show Guide.” For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org.

Coriolanus

Coriolanus

photo: Jerry Dalia for STNJ

Shakespeare’s most political play—Coriolanus—is on stage at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) in Madison, N.J., through July 24, and a stunning production it is. You cannot help but draw the rough parallels between the story of Caius Martius Coriolanus and the current U.S. political climate, though these associations result more from Shakespeare’s uncanny insights about human strengths and frailties than a precise forecasting of electoral politics, 2016. (UPDATE: The timeliness of the issues in this play were further explored in an August essay in Guernica.)

Director Brian Crowe’s notes say the play has been various interpreted over the centuries, and that “Shakespeare does not take sides outright, and we will attempt to avoid doing so in this production as well.” There is room for people of all political views to see themselves and their foes in the play’s stirring words. STNJ calls it “a perfect Shakespeare play for an election year.”

Coriolanus (played by Greg Derelian) is a military hero, and when he returns triumphant from the battle of Corioli, the Senate wants to appoint him consul, Rome’s highest office. But because of his disdainful regard for ordinary Romans, the two tribunes who represent the commoners oppose him and inflame the mobs against him. The tribunes, played to perfection by John Ahlin and Corey Tazmania (in a brilliant bit of gender-blind casting), are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they set in motion forces they cannot control that could lead to Rome’s destruction.

As a result of their hectoring, Coriolanus is banished from the city and allies with his former foes to march on the capital and seek revenge. Only at the last moment does the pleading of his wife and, especially, his mother Volumnia (Jacqueline Antaramian) persuade him from his course. Volumnia, who has some of the play’s most powerful speeches, asserts that her son’s valor comes from her. But she is also politic, whereas Coriolanus is rigid and uncompromising. He believes the noble patricians should rule the city by birthright (classic 1% thinking!), while the people’s tribunes say, “What is the city, but the people?”

Throughout the play the metaphor of the “body politic” appears, first formulated by patrician Menenuis Agrippa (Bruce Cromer) and mockingly referenced by Coriolanus in addressing the plebeians: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, that, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourself scabs.”

It’s exciting to see a cast of some two-dozen players—all of whom appear on stage in several well choreographed scenes (director Crowe is STNJ’s Director of Education). The minimalist set is visually interesting and opens to reveal a shining Roman eagle, variously lit to dramatic effect. Kudos also to the excellent sound design. An exciting theater experience!

For tickets, call the STNJ box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org.

(A version of this review previously appeared on the NYC-area theater website: TheFrontRowCenter.com.)

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)(revised)

Shakespeare Theatre of NJYou may recall with delight the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), whose madcap condensation of Shakespeare’s plays began making the rounds in 1981 and became one of the theater world’s most-produced plays. Some of the funniest material from the play’s many international productions has made its way into this new version—“updated for the 21st century”—by the three founding members of RSC: Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield.

It’s a fast-moving farce, well suited for The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s (STNJ) annual outdoor stage production. This new production has new surprises, including a rap version of Othello (thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda). As directed by Jeffrey M. Bender, it’s as antic and energetic as its predecessor. It would have to be, since (abridged)(revised) presents all 37 plays and the sonnets, after a fashion, in 97 minutes. There’s one intermission an hour in—Red Bull break for the cast, methinks.

The cast includes STNJ regular Jon Barker (a master of body language), Connor Carew, and Patrick Toon, each changing personae at the blink of an eye or slapping on of a wig. Carew’s Ophelia is hilarious, and Toon is a lustily belligerent Romeo. From time to time, there are bits of audience participation, perfect for the relaxed atmosphere of the outdoor stage.

The clever set comprises giant volumes of the Bard’s works. The books’ spines conceal doors, prop drawers, and the like. While the set and the setting are great, and the cast does an amazing job, the script itself fits my mother-in-law’s ambiguous phrase, “it is what it is.” A couple of the most familiar plays—Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet—receive more attention than the others, and the roller-coaster ride through the comedies is great fun.

We overheard that some of the reworking of material was intended to make this play—and perhaps Shakespeare’s works themselves—“more attractive to a younger audience.” In line with that goal, tickets are free for kids 18 and younger at the Outdoor Stage, thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Bank of America.

Presumably, the younger audience in question means 14-year-old boys, given the emphasis on bawdy humor of the type that makes them giggle knowingly. The script has enough gags—verbal and sight—that there’s no need to tarry in some of the more obvious places (“the last four letters” of Coriolanus, for example). While what people will find funny is heavily a matter of individual taste, Sunday’s audience at STNJ found enough of what they liked to give the performers steady laughter and an enthusiastic reception.

Through July 31 at the beautiful outdoor Greek Theatre on the campus of the College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, New Jersey. Arrive early, take a picnic.

For tickets, call the STNJ box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the box office online.