The recipe for Fairycakes: Start with a cast of beloved New York stage actors known for their comic flair (Julie Halston, Anne Harada, Jackie Hoffman, et al), stick rhyming couplets in their mouths and dress them in the most colorful costumes of the season, then dump them in a pan of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pour in a heavy mash up of fairy and folk tales (Cinderella, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, etc.) Sprinkle with intermittent wit. Chop up, and mix, until unrecognizable. Then serve the resulting concoction both half-baked and overdone.
“Fairycakes”, running at the Greenwich House Theater through January 2, 2022, *is a mess. But it’s the kind of mess to which long-deprived theatergoers can say: It was fun to see a show again; it has its tasty moments; it has a game cast.
The show is both written and directed by Douglas Carter Beane, the playwright of such carefully constructed comedies as “The Nance” and “The Little Dog Laughed.” By contrast, “Fairycakes” feels overcomplicated; it too often strains to be clever; and, at two and a half hours (albeit including an intermission), it winds up overlong.
Eight of the dozen actors in the cast portray characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although their personalities and their unfolding stories rarely align with Shakespeare’s original.
Julie Halston and Arnie Burton are Titania and Oberon, the squabbling Queen and King of the Fairies. Jackie Hoffman, Ann Harada, Kristolyn Lloyd and Z Infante portray Titania’s fairy daughters (in Shakespeare, they’re Titania’s servants.) Jamen Nanthakumar is the young Indian prince that in Shakespeare Oberon wants to knight but in Beane Titania wants to bed. Chris Myers is an unusually manly (and shirtless) Puck. In the first of the many pairings to follow, Puck is drawn to Lloyd’s resistant Peasebottum, whom he nicknames Fairycakes (hence the title?)
Halston also portrays Queen Elizabeth I (yes, the monarch during Shakespeare’s time. Explanation below.) Burton also plays a pirate (from Peter Pan), Harada a mermaid, Z Infante a Princess (from Sleeping Beauty.) Nanthakumar also portrays both Cricket (from Pinocchio) and Cinderella’s stepmother.
It’s not just the actors who double up. The characters do double duty too. All four of Shakespeare’s fairy children moonlight in other tales: Z Infante’s Cobweb works as Cinderella’s fairy godmother; Harada’s Mustardseed was the one who put a curse on the princess of Sleeping Beauty because she wasn’t invited to her christening, while Peasebottum was the one who changed the death sentence to a long sleep. Hoffman’s Moth is also Tinker Bell.
Confusion seems to be the point. Even the characters are confused. While Cobweb is ministering to Cinderella. Titania’s other fairies intrude, including Mustardseed:
Mustardseed: Sweet toothless child, of financial need
I bring you now a treat from Mustardseed.
You had a fistfight, you fell with a bang.
Now, here, ‘neath this pillow you’ve left a fang. Then with youthful need and manner so brash, You expect this tooth exchanged for cold cash.
Cinderella: Fairy, I think you’ve got the wrong abode, The kids all live other side of the road.
Mustardseed: Ugh now, you see? This is causing me stress. Got superpowers, but no G.P.S.
The actors portraying the non-Midsummer Night Dream’s characters include:
Jason Tam as Prince and Cupid (in a gold loincloth, more Fairycakes beefcake.)
Kuhoo Verma as both Cinderella and Aurora
Mo Rocca (whose day job is correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning, which he should keep) as Geppetto, while Pinocchio is portrayed by Sabatino Cruz. (Both actors also portray Cinderella’s stepsisters.) Near the beginning of “Fairycakes,” we see Geppetto carve Pinocchio into life, with the help of Peasebottum; throughout most of the rest of the play, Pinocchio runs on and off stage, apparently trying to escape Geppetto, and Geppetto chases after him, in a simulacrum of a farce. This busyness might have worked to better comic effect with a different director, whose default staging didn’t seem to be having as many of the actors as possible standing around crammed together shoulder to shoulder.
I won’t detail how all these characters mix and match – not because I want to avoid spoilers, but because life is too short. By the end, there is a stage full of happy couples, much like in a Shakespeare comedy (although the pairs are unlikely, often comically so) and the play finally comes into some kind of focus.
My focus until then had been on Gregory Gale’s comic costumes. His Mermaid costume, for example, is sticky with trash, from plastic forks to discarded face masks.
To be fair, along the way, there are funny lines, and even a few outright enlightening moments. At one point, Queen Elizabeth explains why she’s in the play, by picking up a paperback “No Fear Shakespeare” version of Midsummer Night’s Dream and asking us to read along:
“Oberon mentions me once and no more. It’s act two, scene one, line one sixty four.” She reads the line, and then:
“It is ancient Greece and Bill mentions me.
Chalk that up to idiosyncrasy.
But then the scoundrel he presses anon.
‘And the imperial votress passed on’.
‘vestals’ and ‘votress’ he writes with such hate,
His sly way to say I can’t get a date.
“Which if you’re a queen sure causes despair
As all of England is needing an heir.
‘In maiden meditation, fancy: free’
Again “maiden”, why he do this to me?
This show with nymphs, lovers, mechanical
He stops to mock me it’s tyrannical.
“So each school and college that does this show
Among the frolic there’s something to know
Known by the foolish but never the smart
Politics exists in each work of art.”
Greenwich House Theater through January 2, 2022 * update: the show will now close November 21, 2021
Running time: two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission
written and directed by Douglas Carter Beane
associate director and choreographer Ellenore Scott
Scenic design by Shoko Kambara & Adam Crinson, costume design by Gregory Gale , lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew.
Cast: Arnie Burton, Sabatino Cruz, Julie Halston, Ann Harada, Jackie Hoffman, Z Infante, Kristolyn Lloyd, Chris Myers, Jamen Nanthakumar, Mo Rocca, Jason Tam and Kuhoo Verma.
Photographs by Matthew Murphy