Midsummer A Banquet Review. Shortened Shakespeare and Finger Food via Third Rail Projects

It would be easy to make some wrong assumptions about this dinner theater production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Café Fae, given its title, its marketing, and the fact that it is co-produced by Third Rail Projects, New York’s most prolific immersive theater company ( Then She FellGrand ParadiseGhost Light), in collaboration with Food of Love Productions.

For one, this is not a mute dance-theater version of Shakespeare’s comedy. The actors recite the Bard’s actual words, in a production that followers of Third Rail Projects are likely to find surprisingly ordinary.

Using a minimalist design aesthetic suggesting story theater, enhanced by composer Sean Hagerty’s lovely and unobtrusive music, the show’s director and choreographer Zach Morris (co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects) stages some fine and funny scenes. The cast is mostly but not uniformly fine, though, and there are only eight of them. (The 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” had 25; Julie Taymor’s 2013 production at Theatre for a New Audience had 37.)  The eight must navigate around a relatively small playing space between the café tables, in a dining room bisected by four central (albeit thin) white columns, which occasionally hampered sightlines.

In keeping with the minimalist approach, Morris and cast member Victoria Rae Sook have also shortened the script, deleting so much of the details that it might be advisable to brush up in advance on the four (occasionally overlapping) subplots — the four lovers; the  “rude mechanicals” who put on the comic Romeo and Juliet-like play within the play; the royal couple about to wed; and the fairy world rife with tension and mischief. I’d say that Morris and Sook cut the script to the bone, but that would be an inapt expression since the little finger foods served at intervals throughout  the show are vegan. (The initial small plate of appetizers, though, does contain some salami.)

That leads to the second possible misconception. The “multi-course tasting menu”  is so paltry – one “course” was a glass jar containing just one mushroom, one apricot and a single olive – that some theatergoers might wonder whether the “Banquet” in the title is meant ironically; others may want to call the Better Business Bureau.

That’s not the only culinary dissonance. Unlike, say, the Russian meal that was served in the pre-Broadway run of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” the food at “Midsummer: A Banquet” doesn’t seem to have much of a connection to the play.  They do make a stab at it. The menu, created by Emilie Baltz, features one course described as a “love bundle” — cherries wrapped in a green and white picnic napkin — that the actors playing love-struck characters casually distributed while reciting their lines (but only to those theatergoers who paid at least $150 for their ticket.)

The young cast deserves our admiration, and our sympathy. They not only had to juggle two or three roles each, and perform as troubadours singing and playing musical instruments; they also had to serve as waiters, and even to bus our tables during intermission. (Another possible provocation to call someone, this time Actors Equity?)

Still, if as Helena says in the play “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,” the stomach need not get in the way either.  Having an actual meal somewhere else beforehand, and opting for the cheaper seats — thus forgoing the mushroom, the apricot and the love bundle — may actually increase one’s appetite for the show itself!  Especially savory are the Pyramis and Thisby play-within-the-play (kudos in particular to Charles Osborne as Bottom essaying Pyramis, and Joshua Gonzales as Snout portraying The Wall), and the scene of ardor-filled fighting, which was athletically and hilariously choreographed, among the four sexy lovers – Lysander (Alex J. Gould), Hermia (Caroline Amos), Demetrius (Joshua Gonzales again) and Helena (Adrienne Paquin, who is a stand-out in all three of her roles, and in her guitar playing.)

Even with the less expensive ticket, you’ll still be eligible for the “dessert courses.” But be forewarned.  The sixth course – a chocolate lollipop and a merengue square on a stick – was not served to us at our seats.  In an announcement that was in apparent response to our uncertain, expectant looks at show’s end, we were told to pick the course up in its little cellophane bag on the way out.

Click on any photograph by Chad Batka to see it enlarged.


Midsummer: A Banquet
By William Shakespeare, adapted by Zach Morris and Victoria Rae Sook.
Directed and Choreographed by Zach Morris
Menu created by Emilie Baltz.
Set design by Jason Simms, costume design by Tyler M. Holland, lighting design by Deborah Constantine, and original music and sound design by Sean Hagerty
Cast: Caroline Amos as Hermia/Snug/Fairy, Cassie Gilling  as Understudy, Joshua Gonzales as Demetrius/Snout/Fairy, Alex J. Gould as Lysander/Flute/Fairy, Charles Osborne as Bottom/Egeus/Fairy, Adrienne Paquin  as Helena/Quince/Fairy, Brendan Sokler as Understudy, Victoria Rae Sook as Titania/Hippolyta, Lauren Walker as Robin Goodfellow/Philostrate/Straveling, and Ryan Wuestewald as Oberon/Theseus.
Running time: Two and a half hours, including intermission.
Tickets: $75 to $200
Midsummer: A Banquet is on stage through September 7, 2019

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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