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This article by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 28, 2000. All rights reserved.

Shakespeare in the . . . Community Park North

E-mail: JoanCrespi@princetoninfo.com

Comedy, magical or tempestuous, comes to Princeton

this summer as Princeton Rep, a professional theater company, presents

not one but two Shakespeare plays over eight weekends (that’s 24 performances

barring storms), all free, as the highlights of its Shakespeare festival.

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" plays from June 30 to July 23,

followed in August by "The Taming of the Shrew," that classic

man-woman contest popularized by the well-known musical, "Kiss

Me, Kate."

Not only has Princeton Rep — Victoria Liberatori is artistic director,

and Anne Reiss, executive producer — extended its Shakespeare

presentations in Princeton from a single weekend, but it has moved.

For five years, Princeton Rep performed Shakespeare in Palmer Square.

This year the company is presenting its main productions in Community

Park North. Like the New York original, it’s "Shakespeare in the

Park."

How did this happen? Last year at Princeton Rep’s production of "Twelfth

Night" there weren’t enough seats for the crowd. When I attended

on Saturday night, some 200 people stood for the entire performance.

The previous night, when rain forced performance indoors to Nassau

Presbyterian Church, limited seating caused many to be turned away,

including Borough Mayor Marvin Reed. Luckily, it turns out, for us.

"Mayor Reed wanted to meet with us after that and talk about how

we could expand the festival," explains Reiss in a telephone interview

from the Rep’s Princeton office. Expanding the festival had long been

a company goal.

As a result, Liberatori and Reiss met with Mayor Reed, Phyllis Marchand,

mayor of Princeton Township, and Jack Roberts of Princeton Recreation

Department. With the agreement of the Pettoranello Foundation, the

company was offered a summer home at the ampitheater in Pettoranello

Gardens in Community Park North. Yet the company is maintaining its

Palmer Square connection, where, with the help of David Newton of

Palmer Square Management, the summer Shakespeare festival has grown

steadily. Princeton Rep will perform there twice this year, August

26 and 27.

Jeff Cohen, artistic director of the Worth Street Theater

Company in New York’s Tribeca district, is directing the production

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream." Cohen, who’s known for his contemporary

adaptations of classical plays, is "astonished by the play. It

blew me away," he says in a telephone interview from his home

in New York.

"Shakespeare has created three different comedies, three different

worlds. Oberon and Titania speak in elevated language. The comedy

of the four lovers is written in sublime, youthful, and very exhuberant

rhyming couplets. And then you’ve got the comedy of the mechanicals,

which is full of about as much elevated humor as the Three Stooges.

The three comedies brilliantly exist alone and also intertwine into

a unified whole."

The framing story includes Theseus, the duke, and his betrothed, Hippolyta,

queen of the Amazons, whom he’ll marry in three days. The lovers are

Lysander and his beloved Hermia, and Demetrius, who also loves Hermia,

but she doesn’t love him. Demetrius is doggedly pursued by Helena,

who loves him, but whom he hates. Hermia and Helena are friends and

were schoolmates. In the initial complication, Hermia’s father, Egeus,

has determined that she will marry Demetrius, and it is his right

under law to dispose of her how he will: she must marry Demetrius

or die. So Hermia and Lysander flee to a wood outside the city.

In the second group are workmen from the city — Quince, Bottom,

Flute, Snout — also known as the Mechanicals. They’re in the wood

rehearsing the masque of Pyramus and Thisbe which they plan to present

at Theseus’ wedding.

Fairies make up the third group. Oberon and Titania are king and queen

of the fairies, Robin Goodfellow (better known as Puck) is their main

servant. Oberon and Titania have come to the nuptials of Theseus and

Hippolyta to wish them joy. But they are estranged (and the world

is awry) because Oberon wants for his page a changling Indian boy

whom Titania refuses to give up.

The bulk of the play takes place in the wood, a place of mystery and

magic. Helena, told of Hermia and Lysander’s plans, betrays their

flight to Demetrius, hoping to win his love. Demetrius goes to the

wood, seeking Hermia, while Helena pursues him. But it is the aggrieved

Oberon, the fairy king, who sets the main plot spinning by instructing

Puck to find the magic potion from a flower and sprinkle its juice

on the lids of a sleeping youth in city garb. The youth will love

the first creature he sees on awakening. Oberon means for Puck to

put this fairy juice on Demetrius’ eyelids to make him love Helena,

but Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius. Awakening, Lysander first

sees and now loves Helena and hates his former beloved, Hermia.

But it is not just benign mischief that spurs Oberon’s instruction

to Puck. He wants revenge on Titania for the keeping the boy and has

Puck sprinkle the same magical juice on her sleeping eyes. Puck then

puts an ass’s head on Bottom. Titiana, awakening and first seeing

the ass-headed Bottom, loves him. At last Oberon, obtaining the boy,

takes pity on Titania’s doting on an ass and has Puck reverse the

spell.

To three concurrent plots — Hermia disbelieving and bereft after

the magically changed Lysander, Helena newly loved by Lysander and

Demetrius, Helena thinking she’s being mocked by Hermia, Lysander

and Demetrius about to fight over Helena — add Oberon’s spell

put on Titania.

Finally, Egeus is quickly pacified, the human lovers, now three loving

couples, marry, then relax to watch the masque put on by the earnest

but bumbling workmen.

"It’s an exciting but very daunting play," says Cohen. "The

first thing I had to do was come up with a time and a place to set

it in. You can be true to the Elizabethan, which sets the play in

ancient Athens, but I try to find an American equivalent that can

make the play breathe. We chose post World War II, late ’40s."

In a small town, he stresses, where everybody is so excited about

Theseus’ wedding, there’s a sense of almost `Leave it to Beaver’ innocence

and, perhaps, sexual repression.

Thus Theseus is a local boy who has gone off to war and become a war

hero. He first apppears in a wheelchair, bitter that he’s been wounded,

with all the implications for his virility, says Cohen. "In the

dream he is Oberon, this incredibly athletic, very vital king of the

fairy world." At the end Theseus’ wounds prove to be not permanent

and, says Cohen, "Theseus is less bitter, a more open person."

"Why Hermia’s father prefers Demetrius over Lysander is never

explained, since the two seem equal," Cohen elaborates, "yet

there’s this sense of this thing set in motion amongst these innocent,

virginal lovers. Then you have a dream. Are you to take that world

literally or take it as a dream-like manifestation of the reality

of the play? I didn’t want to have the fairy world like a `Star Trek’

episode of aliens coming from outer space and sort of manipulating

human beings. For me, it was much more interesting to create a dream

that had Freudian ramifications where a lot of the sexual repressions

in life sort of fly into a fanciful, very comic, or sometimes very

dark, manifestations of a dream."

"The Elizabethans saw a very thin line between dreaming and waking,"

Cohen continues. "Things concerned them that we, with our advanced

science, seem to poo-poo, like astrology and numerology and different

kinds of celestial things. They were very interested in the idea of

`Are you and I now awake?’or `Are you and I now sleeping?’ `When we

dream, is that the real existence?’ or `When we’re awake, is that

the real existence?’ So I think all of that led me to this place where

the dream is a very potent and powerful image that drives the play

forward.

"The dream manifests itself in several ways through the production,"

Cohen elaborates, "and it involves a lot of double casting."

Actors playing Theseus, Hippolyta, and Philostrate play fairies in

the dream.

Bradley Cole acts the dual roles of Theseus and Oberon,

the duke of the city and the king of the fairies. Cole was on stage

in Paris and currently plays Prince Richard in the CBS daytime series,

"The Guiding Light," for which he has received several industry

awards.

Queen Esther plays Hippolyta and Titania. She just performed a one-woman

show at the Joseph Papp Public Theater’s cabaret room, and has been

on national tours of "Sophisticated Ladies" and "Rent."

Liam O’Brien plays Puck, Oberon’s servant and the instrument of the

dream’s revels, as well as Philostrate, Theseus’ aide and master of

the revels.

Playing Bottom, the amateur thespian who acquires an ass’s head, is

David Greenspan, whose credits include the Obie-Award and Drama Desk

nomination for his performance in the Off-Broadway revival of "The

Boys in the Band."

While most of the cast comes from New York, Princeton resident Karen

Traynor plays Hermia.

Princeton also provides the bevy of fairies. Peaseblossom, Moth, Cobweb,

and Mustardseed and other fairies are played by eight girls, ages

10 to 14, from the Princeton Ballet School. Russian born choreographer

Alexander Tressor directs the young dancers. Tressor has danced on

Broadway in three shows and has written his own ballet which received

rave reviews from the New York Times and the Village Voice.

The ampitheater seats about 300, and 150 more can sit on the grassy

incline (bring your own blanket). At the performances picnic dinners

will be for sale as will be bottled water and iced tea, and maybe

ice cream from Thomas Sweet. (And, yes, there will be portable toilets.)

In case of torrential rain, the performance will be called an hour

before the show and ticketholders can go to Fleet Bank to obtain tickets

for another performance.

You may wonder whose "Midsummer-Night’s Dream" is this anyway?

Titania’s? Lysander’s? Demetrius’? Helena’s? Hermia’s? Yours? As Puck,

closing the play in Shakespeare’s magical language, tells his audience:

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumb’red here

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream…

— Joan Crespi

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Princeton Rep, Pettoranello

Gardens, Mountain Avenue & Route 206, 609-688-0381. Performances are

Fridays through Sundays, through July 23. Free, but $10 donation encouraged.

Friday, June 30, 7 p.m.

The Taming of the Shrew begins Friday, August 4, at

7 p.m., with performances Fridays to Sundays, through August 27.


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