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MAGICAL MAYHEM

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Surrounded by venerable old trees and rolling meadows, the Prospect Park Tennis House Pavilion with its classic columns, steps and arches, is the ideal stage for Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream." But this has not led The LITE Company to create a traditional production.

The acronym stands for The Laboratory for International Theatre Exchange, a name that indicates its dedication to the creation and performance of new work, as well as the exploration of contemporary perspectives on traditional dramatic work. Not surprisingly, their goal is to make theater accessible to new audiences and to maintain a dialogue between the theater of the past and contemporary audiences.

Much of this is reflected in this season’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

Directors Adam Melnick, Peter Campbell and Leigh Anderson have dressed Shakespeare’s young lovers in the knickers, straw hats and flapper dresses of the Roaring ’20s. And the Rude Mechanicals are off-duty park workers (hedge trimmer, lemonade vendor, guard, etc.) who present a bumbling version of Pyramus and Thisbe that one suspects would have delighted the Bard himself.

As the sun sets and the fireflies come out, The LITE Company transports the audience from a summer night in Brooklyn to a magical world of faeries dressed in gaudy, ragtag clothing. One longs to kick the padded buttocks of Puck (Jennifer Bryan), that ultimate prankster, as she wreaks mayhem among the lovers by pouring love-juice into the wrong eyes at the wrong time.

But what makes this "Midsummer Night’s Dream" particularly pleasing is the fine acting and direction that captures all the mischievous good humor and slapstick comedy of those bawdy Elizabethan times. The LITE Company, which last year unearthed the comic irony in Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet" at the same venue, this year brings its trademark physicality to "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

Strongly influenced by commedia dell’arte and vaudeville, this troupe of men and women make merry on the lawn in front of the pavilion, and sometimes even mingle with the audience, searching for a missing comrade or going about their duties as park attendants.

Helena (Amalie Ceen) pursues Demetrius (David Gochfeld), the unwilling object of her affections, with the willful exuberance of the great Lucille Ball. Lysander (Trevor Davis) and Demetrius, both of whom are now enamored of Helena thanks to Puck’s ministrations, battle over Helena with a rolled-up umbrella. Sharon Cinnamon makes an agile and highly amusing flip from Hermia the sought after to Hermia the rejected.

The two young couples cavort and cavil, proclaim their love and pursue their lovers with a zany disregard for propriety.

The two older couples, Thesus, Duke of Athens and his betrothed, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons; and Oberon, king of the faeries and his estranged queen Titania, are played by the same actors, Ayinde Hurrey and Lisa Maher, which at the same time enhances and obscures the difference between magic and reality.

When, at last, swains and damsels, king and queen are united with their true loves, the park workers remind the audience that love, like drama, can be made to entertain.

Under the direction of founder and artistic director Adam Melnick, The LITE Company also produces the Chekov NOW Festival, now in its third year, at the Connelly Theater in Manhattan’s East Village. Other major productions include a revival of Carlo Gozzi’s political satire "The King Stag" (1998) as well as company original works: "Camp Holocaust" (1997 and 2000) and "The Master of Prayer" (2001).

Shakespeare’s robust comedies and eloquent tragedies have all too often suffered under the hands of misguided directors who feel compelled to take away or add to the playwright’s original script. Fortunately, The LITE Company has understood how to balance creativity with caution and revision with respect. The result is a sparkling, witty production that brings out the best of Elizabethan England in a contemporary Brooklyn setting.

 

A serious matter

It has often been said that tragedy shows humankind at its noblest, when human beings struggle to overcome fate, circumstance or their own weakness. Comedy, on the other hand, reveals us at our most base, exposing all our faults, frailty and foolishness in a most unfavorable light. In fact, it is this very breach between what we are and what we believe we should be that is the source of laughter.

That being said, comedy is also the most elusive and subjective of dramatic elements. Is Charlie Chaplin’s sentimentality funny or maudlin? Is Buster Keaton’s stoicism amusing or heroic? Is Lenny Bruce’s outrageousness satirical or sadistic? Indeed, we all cry when we are truly happy, and as anyone who has ever witnessed hysteria will readily attest, anxiety and sorrow often look a great deal like mirth.

The Vortex Theater company calls its "If Fool Thou Art," now premiering at the Brooklyn Lyceum, "an evening of new comedies." The four original works include "Anonymous" and "Toto," two cameo pieces that portray theatrical life, written and performed by Laura Taylor; "Obligation," a skit written by Roger Rifkin and starring Jennifer Brooke Hamburg as a working actress and Rita Rehn as a prospective agent interviewing her; and "The Murder of Joyce Carol Oates," a one-act that offers a behind-the-scenes study of how a play is produced.

All these pieces are certainly entertaining. DJ McDonald’s direction is excellent, the actors’ timing is usually right, and the cast has admirable mastery over the facial, physical and tonal expression of their material. But does this result in sidesplitting or even chuckling humor? This reviewer thinks not.

"Anonymous" is the monologue of a young woman who introduces herself as a "ho," and then goes on to explain why. She sleeps with men she doesn’t especially like, lies to them about their sexual prowess and is willing to do almost anything they want. She doesn’t do this for money; far worse, she does it because she is lonely and desperate. Unfortunately, for many people, this is far too close to the plight of too many real women to be funny.

"Obligation" is about the cynicism and insensitivity of theatrical agents who dangle the carrot of representation in front of actors who are victims of their own ambitions and egos. So what else is new?

"Toto" is a fantasy about a dog that years ago starred as Toto in "The Wizard of Oz," although she really wanted to be Dorothy. In the end, she acknowledges, "I never had a chance." Her mother had conspired with the director and even tied her hair into pigtails that looked like dog ears. You don’t have to be a dog lover to find this more sad than funny.

"The Murder of Joyce Carol Oates" is based on Thomas Jackson’s experiences during years of staging the theater works of this formidable contemporary American writer. It’s filled with inside and not-so-inside jokes about theatrical life - the superstitions, exhibitionism and competitive nature of actors, method acting, the obtuseness of scripts. Doubtless some actors may groan and grin when the director (John Patrick Nord) explains that tech people have to be paid because they work for money, while actors, who have loftier goals, can do without.

However, Jackson’s play has little of the universal appeal found in Michael Frayn’s "Noises Off" or Ken Ludwig’s "Moon Over Buffalo."

If tragedy demands empathy, the viewer’s ability to put himself in the place of the protagonist and feel pity, fear and sorrow, comedy demands recognition and distance. The viewer must find the characters and situations familiar but be more willing to laugh at or with the victim than sympathize with his plight.

Comedy views life through a special ironic prism, distorting it in a way that is often delightfully cruel.
The problem with the shorter pieces in "If Fool Thou Art" is that, for the most part, there’s too much life and not enough prism, so that this reviewer found herself more often sympathizing with the characters than laughing at them.

The problem with "The Murder of Joyce Carol Oates" is that it is much too specific to the theater experience for the average viewer. Taken out of context, the characters just aren’t funny enough.

Does all this mean that "If Fool Thou Art" is not worthwhile theater? Not at all. "If Fool Thou Art" may not be belly laugh comedy, but it does have its moments - mostly when the performers triumph over their scripts. Hopefully, this truly talented troupe will find better material next time around.

 

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" plays through Aug. 12, Thursdays and Fridays at 7 pm, Sundays at 2 pm and 5 pm. All performances are free and open to the public. Viewers are encouraged to bring blankets or folding chairs. To get to the Prospect Park Tennis House, enter the park at Ninth Street and Prospect Park West and cross the West Drive. For more information, including rain dates, call the hotline: (212) 414-7773.

"If Fool Thou Art" continues through Aug. 8, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 pm at The Brooklyn Lyceum (227 Fourth Ave. at President Street). Tickets: $15. For reservations, call (718) 857-4816.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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