William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night Dream is perfect comedy for July or August and adding a meal is an even cleverer idea. Presented jointly by Food of Love Productions and Third Rail Projects, both of which stage site-specific theatrical events, Midsummer: A Banquet is the brainchild of director/choreographer Zach Morris whose Then She Fell just celebrated its 4,000th performance, a similarly interactive experience. The show takes place at Café Fae, a turn-of-the-last century Parisian-style cabaret created at a site that once was the studio and home of prominent Abstract Expressionist artists Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Larry Pons and Paul Jenkins. The decor includes designs that suggest Alphonse Mucha and Tiffany mosaics, which is period appropriate to the 1900 setting.
The pleasant five-course tasting meal is delivered by the eight hard-working actors doubling as waiters and waitresses. Aside from the first course (crudité and delicatessen, plus red or white wine) which is already on the tables when the audience arrives, the other courses are tied to the plot of Shakespeare’s play as though we are invited to the rehearsal dinner for the royal wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Act I offers Savory delights while the second act offers Sweet ones, such as Vegetables, Fruits, Snack, Sparkling wine and Desserts.
While the audience is seated at café tables or high tops, cast members offer musical entertainment accompanied by guitar before the play begins. The actors, dressed in identical brown jodhpurs begin to appear in costumes appropriate for Shakespeare’s Athens, circa 1900. What we witness is a charming, abbreviated version of the moonlit romantic comedy in which a pair of lovers, Hermia and Lysander, forbidden to marry by her father, run away to the nearby forest followed by Demetrius, engaged to marry Hermia, and Helena who was previously the beloved of Demetrius.
In the meantime, a band of Athenian workers prepare a totally inappropriate play, “The Most Lamentable Comedy and most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe,” for the coming nuptials of Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta on the following day. As night falls, both the workers and the lovers are interrupted by the revels of Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies. Puck, a mischievous sprite in the service of Oberon, turns weaver Nick Bottom into a donkey with Titania as his beloved and mixes up the lovers with the aid of a flower called “love-in-idleness” but also must be put back in order by morning when the fairies vanish and the weddings are scheduled to take place.
Using the aisles and a pillar turned into a large tree, the talented and energetic cast of eight all play two roles each, with six of them also playing the fairies. So versatile are the actors that they make you believe that you have seen at least 16 actors instead of half as many. The pairings are quite clever. Ryan Wuestewald and Victoria Rae Sook play both sets of royals, Oberon and Titania, Theseus and Hippolyta, respectively, who never need to appear together. Lauren F.Walker is a crafty Robin Goodfellow (aka Puck) as well as the competent master of ceremonies Philostrate for Duke Theseus. Charles Osborne is an authoritarian Egeus, Hermia’s father, and a hilarious egotistical and over-the-top Bottom.
The young lovers are energetic and charmingly played by Caroline Amos (Hermia), Joshua Gonzales (Demetrius), Alex J. Gould (Lysander) and Adrienne Paquin (Helena). In their tussling in the forest, their clothes begin to come off as the midsummer magic of the forest begins to work on them. Paquin and Gonzalez take the acting honors in their characters’ desperation and inventiveness. Five of the actors delightfully play the band of workers masquerading as actors led by Paquin’s Peter Quince, the carpenter, whose idea the “Pyramus and Thisbe” play is. So well disguised and resourceful are the actors that one has to look at the program to realize they are the performers who play the lovers, Robin Goodfellow and Egeus. The staging of the play within the play for the Duke’s wedding is one of the funniest in recent memory, Shakespeare’s parody of community theater. Except for one single scene, the fairies are played by lights in mason jars which suggest they are meant to be lightning bugs, a witty touch.
Wunderkind Zach Morris wears four hats: visual and experience design, director and choreography. His ballroom dancing for the pairs of lovers in the latter part of the show seems right in keeping with the cabaret setting. Jason Simms’ set design has delightfully turned a storefront into a Parisian setting which accommodates both the cafe and the performance. Putting Titania’s bower on the balcony level is an inspired touch. The costumes designed by Tyler M. Holland are redolent of the 1900 period and allow for quick changes. Deborah Constantine’s lovely lighting pours moonlight on both the actors and the audience members who sit ringside to the action. The food design by Emilie Baltz is light enough to keep the audience from getting drowsy but surprising enough to be part of the overall fun. Sean Hagerty is responsible both for the excellent sound design and the original music, which also includes various songs along the way.
Midsummer: A Banquet is an auditory and oral treat, a light entertainment for this time of year. Using Zach Morris and Victoria Rae Sook’s skillfully adapted abridgment of Shakespeare’s comedy, the evening of dinner theater is a delightful way to experience the Bard. The meal designed by Emilie Baltz contains various surprises that coincide with the events in the play and are tasty enough to be a filling repast. Shakespeare as dinner theater may not be a new idea but this is an evening of many pleasures.
Midsummer: A Banquet (through September 7, 2019)
Food of Love Productions and Third Rail Projects
Café Fae, 829 Broadway at 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.foodofloveproductions.com
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes with one intermission