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Theatre in Review: Fairycakes (Greenwich House Theatre)

Julie Halston. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Can actors sue their playwright for non-support? Legal minds might say no, but Fairycakes would make an excellent test case. Douglas Carter Beane, the playwright and director of this distinctly odd enterprise, has assembled an A-team comprising some of New York's best clowns only to leave them stranded in a labyrinthine plot that yields little in the way of amusement.

Beane is a specialist in social satire, whether examining Manhattan climbers (As Bees in Honey Drown), small-town community theatre (Shows for Days), or the last days of burlesque (The Nance). Fairycakes is something else altogether, a theatrical botanical experiment that grafts several classic fairy tales onto the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The hybrid that results is peculiar rather than striking.

The title character of Fairycakes -- it's a nickname she hates, and you will refer to her as Peaseblossum, thank you -- is one of the four winged daughters of Titania and Oberon of Midsummer fame. Each is assigned as a kind of supernatural personal assistant to Cinderella, the toymaker Gepetto, and a certain case of arrested development known here as "the boy who flies and sports green tights." As in Shakespeare, Oberon and Titania are feuding over her attachment to a certain changeling child; since he is played by the strapping, adult Jamen Nanthakumar, one feels Oberon has a point. When divorce looms, the goddess Aurora (looking for all the world like Turandot thanks to costume designer Gregory Gale's -- delivers the dire news that the breakup will result in the death in Peaseblossum and her siblings. To avert oblivion, they must somehow repair their parent's marriage -- without them knowing. Enter Puck, who, trying to win Peaseblossum's heart, implements the flowery love charm trick from Midsummer, accidentally inducing a series of wildly inappropriate infatuations: Among other things, Cinderella's prince gets the hots for Gepetto, seeing him as the ultimate silver fox.

It's an evening of clutter, filled with excessive twists and too many characters rushing around to little purpose. The endlessly permutating plot is delivered via rhymed couplets, never a good idea unless you are Richard Wilbur translating Molière. (Okay, maybe also David Hirson's La Bête.) It's a deluge of doggerel, sprinkled with lame cracks about Mia Farrow, Scott Rudin, and TodayTix. (In one modestly amusing example, Peaseblossum, alarmed at her parents' fighting, says, "Their rage is like fire, the heat like a forge/They fight like that play with Martha and George.") Otherwise, it's a rusty piece of farce machinery that takes more than two-and-a-quarter hours to resolve itself.

The comic pros in the cast fend for themselves, valiantly. Arnie Burton is fun as Oberon, furiously snapping that Titania's "boy" is 20 years old, and as Captain Hook, his snarling manner gives way to kvetching like a modern Manhattanite. Ann Harada makes a couple of memorable appearances as a mermaid with a mournful demeanor and Celtic accent. Jackie Hoffman, looking like a refugee from a Christmas panto in her fairy outfit, falls back on her Billie Holiday imitation for a couple of out-of-left field laughs. Julie Halston announcing in her Long Island accent, "Your queen comes here anon," is pretty irresistible; harder to explain is her appearance as Elizabeth I, who halts the action to point out the references to herself in the text of Midsummer.

Their co-stars must make do with effortfully pushing along the plot. Kristolyn Lloyd cuts a fine figure as Peaseblossum, but the character is a dull straight-woman role, although she partners nicely with Chris Myers's Puck. As Geppetto, Mo Rocca is a relatively amateurish presence, but young Sabatino Cruz, sporting tap shoes, is a lively Pinocchio. Jason Tam has a nice double turn as Cinderella's prince, who must learn to shed his snobbery, and as Cupid.

It certainly doesn't help that Beane, acting as his own director, can't find a consistent pace or tone for these convoluted proceedings. The real star of the show is Gale, whose elaborately detailed costumes are an entertainment in themselves. (He gets expert assistance from hair designer Bobbie Zlotnik and makeup designer Andrew Sotomayor.) The set design by Shoko Kambara and Adam Crinson makes pleasing use of old-fashioned scenic painting techniques, right down to the two-dimensional sconces on the proscenium arch. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting leans a little too heavily on a saturated palette; with those costumes, the stage is already flooded with color.

Apparently, Beane wants to say something about the quicksilver nature of love; fair enough, but Shakespeare got there first, and constantly reminding the audience of one of his greatest comedies is not the path to success. Working with such well-known materials results in a case of reverse alchemy, in which gold is turned into lead. Many of the characters in Fairycakes are outfitted with wings, but nobody ever gets off the ground; neither does their play. --David Barbour

(1 November 2021)

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