“Shakespeare in the Theater” is the not-quite-clever title of a festival at the Brick Theater that presents itself as an alternative to New York summer staples, Shakespeare in the Park and Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. It’s different because it takes place inside an air-conditioned theater, rather than outdoors, and, more importantly, because it offers new takes on the Bard’s plays.
To get a taste of the festival, which runs through August 27th (see schedule below) I attended the first performance of the first of the eight productions. The hour-long show, produced by the Neon Nature theater company, is entitled “Dreamers Often Lie,” which makes it different from any of the other adaptations in the festival: Writer Lukas Papenfusscline supplied his own title, rather than using Shakespeare’s. Given what I witnessed, this seems an honorable choice.
Click on any photograph by Walls Trimble to see it enlarged.
This is true even though about 80 percent of the text of “Dreamers Often Lie” comes from “Romeo and Juliet,” and it doesn’t take a Shakespearean scholar to recognize some of the characters and scenes from the Elizabethan tragedy. But Papenfusscline and his director Nick O’Leary do what they can to subvert what’s familiar in big and small ways.
Romeo is portrayed by actress Allison Benko, Juliet by actor
Esaú Mora. The fight between Mercutio and Tybalt is a pillow fight. One recognizes the Prince of Verona’s early speech to the Montagues and Capulets, warning his “rebellious subjects, enemies to peace” to stop feuding. But it is cut in half and recited at the beginning of “Dreamers Often Lie” by the entire cast astride one another in cheerleading mode. This is followed immediately by another of the Prince’s speech (“For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo”), which normally appears at the very conclusion of the play. Here it is recited not by the Prince, but by a character named Yves Saint-Laurent, who seems to substitute both for the Prince and for Friar Laurence.
The most famous scenes from Shakespeare’s play, the balcony scene and the death scene, are so reordered and put into different contexts that audience members would be forgiven for missing them entirely.
This is doubly the case because of what has been added to the play, including some suggestions of gay liaisons, and some obvious anachronisms such as the presence of cell phones, a mention of personal ads, a reference to Susan Sontag. But the most obvious change is that “Dreamers Often Lie” is framed as a house party gone awry, complete with balloons, streamers, drinking cups and ping pong balls. These are employed both in the show itself, and in pre-show activities that theatergoers are encouraged to join.
What should a critic make of “Dreamers Often Lie”?
According to Papenfusscline, his adaptation is “first and foremost about our culture and society’s obsession with narrative.” But he says this in a video put together for a (successful) Indiegogo fundraising appeal, in which other members of the cast and creative team weigh in with different thoughts about the show’s aim – to present life “through a kaleidoscopic queer lens,” to show how poisonous indulgence can be, to express love; the director says: “Our goal is to turn the Brick Theater into a baller party, a dance party….”
Once I read the script, it occurred to me that the playwright, who has a music degree from the New England Conservatory in “Contemporary Improvisation” (and one in Drama from Tufts), was adapting Dada for the stage, in much the way that the venerated avant-garde company Mabou Mines did last year in their play “Glass Guignol: The Brother and Sister Play.” The Mabou Mines play took fragments from Tennessee Williams’ life and work, especially ‘Glass Menagerie,” and treated them explicitly the way Dadaist Marcel DuChamp did his “Readymades.” As a character in “Glass Guignol” explained: “In the art world, a readymade is a familiar object that becomes a work of art by the act of placing it in an unfamiliar context, like the placing of a urinal on a pedestal in an art gallery.” (which DuChamp did in 1917, renaming the urinal “Fountain.”)
Papenfusscline, too, seems to be attempting a new work of art out of the readymades from Shakespeare’s text. I don’t doubt the artistic intent in this, or the playwright’s intelligence. But the varying aims of playwright, director and cast wound up working at cross purposes, and produced for me little more than a muddle. Even the party atmosphere, which some audience members genuinely seemed to enjoy, triggered feelings of attending a cool kids party to which I was invited by accident.
A couple of days after seeing “Dreamers Often Lie,” I went to “Be More Chill,” a teen/sci-fi musical that included a not-quite-clever satire of this widespread impulse to exploit the Bard brand.
The drama teacher Mr. Reyes announces to the students that they will be doing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but updated. “If the theater is to survive, we must remain relevant,” the teacher says. “Which is why our production will be set in a post-apocalyptic future. Instead of frolicking with fairies, there will be fleeing. From zombies.” The new title would be “A Midsummer Nightmare About Zombies.”
One of the students, Christine, speaks up.
“Don’t you care about Shakespeare?”
“The man is dead,” Mr. Reyes replies. “Let it go.”
Shakespeare in the Theater schedule
(descriptions supplied by the productions)
Shuga Pie Supreme
Directed by Anne Ciarlone
Using Shakespeare’s text as our source material, while also pulling from notable adaptations of the work (Brecht, TS Elliot, etc) and adding our own contemporary pop-culture flair, we will stage a brand new retelling of this story. Our hope is to uplight the voices in the play that we don’t hear a lot from – the working class; it could take place 10 years from now, or it could take place 10 minutes from now. Politicians may be reduced to soundbites, but with an ensemble of actors that represent the diverse world we live in, this production will explore the fickle way in which we hold politicians, question traditional leadership qualities, and better understand why the will of the people cannot be ignored.
Monday, August 20 @ 9:30pm
Thursday, August 23 @ 7pm
Saturday, August 25 @ 5pm
Dreamers Often Lie
Written and adapted by Lukas Papenfusscline
Directed by Nick O’Leary
What is Romeo and Juliet if not the tale of house party that’s gotten, well, a little out of hand? Joyful and gently surreal, Neon Nature’s retelling of the star-crossed lovers’ romance celebrates the euphoria and delirium of young love — along with drinking games, pillow fights, hickeys, and the particular stickiness on the bottom of your shoes when you’ve been dancing all night long and someone spilled something on the floor but it was all totally worth it? So, grab a plastic cup and join us for a rollicking toast to the dreams and desires at the heart of Shakespeare’s most infamous — and revelrous — love story.
Monday, August 6 @ 7pm
Saturday, August 11 @ 7pm
Wednesday August 15 @ 9pm
Hamlet: What Dreams May Come
Bakerloo Theatre Project
Directed by William Addis
Hamlet: What Dreams May Come is an original non-linear adaptation with 4 actors playing multiple roles. This streamlined, fast-paced, piece uses Shakespeare’s text in a post-modern exploration of the English language’s most enigmatic anti-hero.
Friday, August 17 @ 7pm
Saturday, August 18 @ 1pm
Sunday, August 19 @ 7pm
Directed by Anna Rebek
Through the lens of a seventies cult, exploring the relationship of power and allegiance in the play King Lear. I’ll create a multifaceted space with psychedelic projections to grant access to the disintegrating world of King Lear, showing us his madness as we go deep into his mind.
Tuesday, August 7 @ 7pm
Thursday, August 9 @ 7pm
Saturday, August 11 @ 2:30pm
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare in the Square
The cast includes Felix Birdie, Kimberly Chatterjee, Estefania Giraldo, Beth-Ann Hopkins, Constantine Malahias and Rebeca Miller.
This production is a stripped-down version of Midsummer, performed on a bare stage with minimal props and costumes. The cast of six performs all the major roles, exploring the thematic and playful potential of doubling actors as fairies, lovers, royals, and mechanicals. This is a very physical, athletic production — as the text often demands — and the creative staging transforms a blank space from Athens to the woods to the fairy kingdom and back again. To highlight the madness/mess of the play, the production explores a variety of food-stuff: the Athenian wood is filled with mashed potatoes, marshmallow goop, pasta and more… There are childish undertones to the food-play as well as a bit of kink, tip-toeing that fine intersection of sexiness and silliness.
Tuesday, August 21 @ 7pm
Sunday, August 26 @ 3pm
Monday, August 27 @ 7pm
I Mean! Productions
Directed by Temar Underwood
This gender-and race-swapped production of Othello speaks directly to today’s political and social climate. This unique and powerful new lens brings newfound urgency to the classic story of jealousy, revenge and the darkest elements of humanity’s lust for power and control, while remaining true to the spirit and intention of Shakespeare’s timeless words.
Tuesday, August 14 @ 7pm
Saturday, August 18 @ 6pm
Sunday, August 26 @ 12pm
A Taste of Shakespeare
Hedgepig Ensemble Theatre
Cast: Olivia Williamson*, Rachel Schmeling,Jory Murphy, Mike Magliocca* & Basil Rodericks* Emily Lyon, Director & Adaptor
*Appearing courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association
A Taste of Shakespeare is a tasting menu of Shakespeare’s greatest love stories and romances. In a 60-minute performance, we present three 20-minute adaptations with just five actors: The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, aptly named Tiny Tempest, 1/12th Night, and Midsummer: Tedious & Brief.
Monday, August 13 @ 7pm
Wednesday, August 22 @ 7pm
Saturday, August 25 @ 12pm
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Monsterpiece Theatre Collective
A whimsical exploration of a farcical plot. Explore the absurdity of Shakespeare’s Two Gentleman of Verona’s improbable lovers in an over the top Gilbert and Sullivan style romp.
Wednesday, August 8 @ 7pm
Saturday, August 11 @ 12pm
Thursday, August 16 @ 7pm