“Hand in hand with fairy grace, we will sing and bless this place…”(Act 5, Sc 1)
Cue crickets, howling dogs, cooing pigeons and all of the other woodland creatures of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn—or of Athens, in the case of Smith Street Stage’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Carroll Park which is set in the exact same place where it is performed: present-day New York City.
This is my first summer volunteering with the local Brooklyn theatre company and I have particularly enjoyed watching the creative process unfold from start to finish. Beginning with the first read-through inside the cozy Park House—or as Peter Quince describes in Act 3, Scene 1.
“…this green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorn-brake our tiring-house.”
To opening night when young children playing in the park were startled to find themselves running side-by-side with Helena and Demetrius. But they didn’t seem out of place, blending in with the actors dressed in contemporary clothing.
When it comes to the setting, Directors often take many liberties with Shakespeare productions. Popular treatments include post-apocalypse, the Roaring 20s, traditional Elizabethan, Victorian age, circus troupes, flower power 60s, etc.
As I considered Director Jonathan Hopkins’ choice to set the show in present-day NYC, at first it seemed sensible, simple, not too flashy. But then again, I live in NYC. I have lived in Brooklyn, and now Manhattan, for nearly four years. While I still love it here, I have become desensitized to its innate flashiness, its awe, wonder and magic.
So when on opening night I watched the actors have to hold their lines so that a commercial cement truck could pass by during the Mechanical’s scene, my inner New Yorker screamed,
“Oh come on, you gottabe kiding me!”
Or when I saw the audience turn their heads distractedly as a stopped car at an intersection began blasting Etta James from their speakers during the Theseus and Hippolyta wedding scene, I was like,
Or most recently, when a “hilarious” teenager on a skateboard at the other end of the park yelled a profanity during Puck’s final soliloquy, I rolled my eyes and muttered some not-so-nice words under my breath.
But then it clicked.
This is a collaboration. A collaboration beyond just the audience and the actors, but between the production and the city itself. The play seemed to be activating a response from the city and as a result it summoned a magic far more powerful than any lighting design or set construction could provide. They didn’t have to simulate or construct a NYC set or soundscape, because they have the real deal each night.
The moment when this magic was first clear to me was when Titania entered for the final blessing ritual at the conclusion of the play. As she commanded her fairies to “sing and bless this place,” a cluster of fireflies, as if on cue, appeared right in front of me, framing the scene before my eyes.
That’s when I realized that even that clunky cement truck is very much a part of the world of Jack Bottom, Peter Quince and the laborers.
Etta James playing in the background of the wedding scene is no more out of place than the saxophone serenading NYU lovers on the benches of Washington Square Park.
And that screaming teenager? Well he is in fact, “the screech-owl, screeching loud” (Act 5, Sc 1) on a Saturday night. The very same one that Puck addresses in his final speech.
Living in New York City, I encounter and navigate a cacophony of sounds and characters the moment I step out my front door. That’s the charm and the magic of this city.
So why should this production be any different?
Smith Street Stage’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has certainly changed the way I walk through the streets of New York City this summer. I see Hermia and Lysander in the couple making out on the F train. I see the Dukes and Hippolytas on stage in Madison Square Garden. I see the fairies hiding in alley ways, rummaging through garbage cans, tagging walls with cans of spray paint and playing music in Union Square.
New York City is in fact, “a marvelous convenient place for our rehearsal” ( Act 3, Sc 1).
And the city shows up, right on cue.
Author, SSS Assistant Kayla Prestel