New BAM Cultural District Playhouse Opens Doors to Magical Shakespeare Production
By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This play will blow you away.
“A Midsummer Night's Dream” is magical – and not just because “Homeland” heart-throb David Harewood goes shirtless as Oberon, King of Shadows.
Mischief-maker-in-chief Puck and Fairy Queen Titania fly through the air in Shakespeare's just-opened Downtown Brooklyn home, the Theatre for a New Audience.
That's no small matter – since the director who makes them soar is none other than Julie Taymor, whose flying actors in “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” suffered a spate of injuries that's become the stuff of Broadway legend.
At TFANA's stunning Ashland Place playhouse, Taymor goes big with bold enchantments of all sorts – and bravo for her. This is Day One of something big – the debut of a Brooklyn institution where if fortune smiles, our grandchildren, and theirs, will come to see classic theater. The bigger the better for her celebratory play.
Taymor's $1.4 million production of “Midsummer Night's Dream” – seen at an Oct. 31 preview in advance of the show's Nov. 2 opening – is breathtaking. The Tony winner, whose extraordinary “Lion King” has thrilled audiences since 1997, delivers lush visual delights at every turn as the Bard's wondrous words lay bare that crazy little thing called love.
The play begins with a rumpled bed bathed in blue light, set in the middle of a black-painted stage. Puck – played brilliantly by Shakespearean actress and director Kathryn Hunter– lies down to sleep, perchance to dream. Trees grow suddenly beneath the bed and Puck is hoisted up in a bed sheet. A worker with a buzz saw cuts the trees out from under the bed – and just like that, the billowing sheet becomes a backdrop lit like a blue cloud-flecked sky.
It's a trippy sequence that sets the tone for what is to come. We'll keep most of Taymor's staging to ourselves and leave surprises for audiences to savor. Suffice it to say that Hunter – known to “Harry Potter” movie fans as Mrs. Arabella Figg – is a fearless frequent flier who does flips in mid-air and hangs head-first from on high. On the ground she's as limber as a contortionist, a riveting comic center of the action.
Tina Benko's luminous Titania is mesmerizing to watch as well. “Luminous” is meant literally as well as figuratively – she wears a necklace of little lights illuminating her moon-pale face.
Benko – who played former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the off-Broadway play “Jackie” – is a magnificent presence, even when she's temporarily in love with a jackass after being drugged by a love potion by her equally magnificent other half, Oberon.
Harewood, who played CIA higher-up David Estes on the TV hit “Homeland,” has done his share of Shakespeare roles and knows how to take command of the stage.
The jackass – a workingman named Bottom whose head has turned into an ass's because of naughty Puck – is played by scene-stealer Max Casella. The “Boardwalk” and “Sopranos” actor was in the original Broadway cast of Taymor's “Lion King.”
The jackass mask that Casella wears has a cut-out that makes his mouth visible, and through clever costume design, the mask's lips move when he talks. When the Fairy Queen kisses him on the mouth, it's a nightmarish moment.
Four young lovers who get lost in the woods are as addled and adorable as they should be – and somehow wind up stripped down to their underwear before their Midsummer Night is over. Spirited sparring by Hermia (Lilly Englert) and Helena (Mandi Masden) is evidence that even back in 1595 when “Midsummer Night's Dream” was written, guys thought girl fights are sexy.
Taymor deploys a squadron of children and teens as fairies who are by turns sinister and sweet. They scare the bejeesus out of the stranded lovers by night but become winsome wedding guests when all's well that ends well with the triple nuptials of Theseus (Roger Clark) and Queen Hippolyta (Okwui Okpokwasili) and the two young couples.
“The course of true love never did run smooth,” as lost-his-way lover Lysander (Jake Horowitz) proclaims. Nor did the course of TFANA construction, which required 17 years of effort by founding artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz and board chairman Ted Rogers.
The combination Elizabethan-style courtyard playhouse and modern black box theater that was the long-awaited happy ending to their epic is named the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in honor of a $10 million donation from the Polonsky Foundation.
Thirty-four-year-old TFANA, which until now held performances in rented venues mostly in Manhattan, is the newest addition to the BAM Cultural District. The mini-neighborhood conceived by Brooklyn Academy of Music bigwig Harvey Lichtenstein, which city officials currently refer to as the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District, is home to more than 40 arts venues.
For those with faint recall of school-day Shakespeare studies, Elizabethan audiences knew Midsummer Night as the night before June 24, “which was the date of Saint John the Baptist's festival and hence connected with merrymaking, various superstitions and folk customs, dances, pageants, and revels,” Wolfgang Clemen wrote in “The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare,” a collection of the Bard's works. “More than any other night of the year, midsummer night suggested enchantment and witchcraft ...”
Also, he noted, Elizabethans thought there was a state of mind, “midsummer madness,” which was “marked by a heightened readiness to believe in the delusions of the imagination that were thought to befall the minds of men after days of great summer heat.”
“Midsummer Night's Dream,” which runs through Jan. 12, is the Taymor's fifth play with TFANA.
Tickets are available at www.tfana.org – for now. When word gets out that this play's the thing, you can bet those ducats will disappear.