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Theatre in Review: Midsummer: A Banquet (Food of Love Productions/Third Rail Projects)

Charles Osborne, Adrienne Paquin, Alex J. Gould, Lauren F. Walker, Joshua Gonzales, Caroline Amos. Photo: Chad Batka.

If, like me, you grew up thinking of dinner theatre as rattletrap revivals of Any Wednesday paired with steamship round of beef, you may be pleasantly surprised by the activities at Café Fae, a former clothing store located a block south of Union Square. There, a troupe of charming and talented young people are presenting a lively production of A Midsummer Night's Dream paired with a distinctive tasting menu. Your servers are, by and large, members of the cast; the dishes arrive at opportune moments in the action. The event has been conceived holistically; we nosh on a carefully composed meal and feast on William Shakespeare's words, making for an evening of civilized pleasure.

The room is set up in conventional restaurant fashion, with tables raised on the extreme sides. After being seated, you are presented with a plate that includes prosciutto, cheese, pickles, and bags of rolls accompanied by various spreads. (Wine and cocktails are available.) The action begins with the cast of eight, paired off, engaging in a formal dance. Once the play proper begins, the director, Zach Morris (who adapted the script with Victoria Rae Sook), and his cast apply a variety of witty touches to the script, some of which slyly invert the action to please contemporary sensibilities. (Adaptation may be putting it too strongly; except for a few judicious cuts, this is the basic text of Shakespeare's forest romp, in which mismatched lovers, battling fairies, and stagestruck workers all collide to comic effect.) For example, Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, may be the lover and prisoner of war of Theseus, Duke of Athens, but she is also capable of wrestling him to a standstill, pinning him against a pillar; clearly, theirs will be marriage of two warrior minds. Later, when the four young lovers (Demetrius, Helena, Hermia, and Lysander) air their dispute in front of Theseus, Hippolyta, a crack archer, passes by carrying an enormous bow -- putting all on notice that she means business.

Other moments are pure screwball comedy: Lysander trying to plant a kiss on the lips of an all-too-talkative Hermia; Helena handing out extra rolls to the audience while outlining her intention to expose Hermia and Lysander's escape from Athens, ultimately hurling pieces of bread at the wall in fury; Helena and Hermia assuming classic fisticuffs stances preparatory to battling it out once and for all; Hippolyta rousing the sleeping lovers with a blast from her hunting horn. In a class by itself is the play-within-the-play, the rude mechanicals' unintentional travesty of Pyramus and Thisbe, here accompanied by a set of riotously crude proto-Foley effects. This scene is reliable comic gold, but the company provides one of the most amusing versions of it that I have seen.

Standouts in the cast include Joshua Gonzales as a self-righteous Demetrius and as Flute, haplessly cast as the Wall in Pyramus and Thisbe; Sook, amusingly imperious as Hippolyta and suitably moonstruck as Titania; and Lauren F. Walker, a sparkling Puck, whose efficiency in carrying out Oberon's orders doesn't preclude her from enjoying herself when she errs, spreading chaos among the runaway young lovers. Also, Caroline Amos is a busily determined Hermia and, as Snug, a riotously unthreatening lion in Pyramus and Thisbe, while Adrienne Paquin invests both the roles of Helena and Quince with a contemporary deadpan delivery that dovetails nicely with Shakespeare's wit. Indeed, everyone -- including Alex J. Gould as Lysander and Flute, Charles Osborne as Bottom and the aggrieved parent Egeus, and Ryan Wuestewald as Theseus and Oberon -- doubles impressively.

The food includes little jars filled with skewers of mushrooms, olives, and dried fruits; pots of quinoa and noodles, supplemented with beans and tomato slices; packages of fruit (sumptuous black cherries at the performance I attended); sparkling wine for the marital festivities near the play's end; and chocolate-and-meringue lollipops after the curtain call. Designed by Emilie Baltz, the menu is delicious and perfectly proportioned for discreet snacking as the action unfolds on both levels of the room. Note: Wherever you sit, sightlines will be less than ideal from time to time, but Morris keeps the company on the move, so they will quickly be back in one's line of vision. Also, the room's acoustics are solid, so you are unlikely to miss a word.

It's difficult to know where the former store's art nouveau style ends and Jason Simms' set design begins, but I'm guessing that he is responsible for the illuminated picture frames in various locations as well as the sliding upstage walls that accompany scene changes. He also provides a circlet of leaves, hung around a central pillar and hoisted when the action moves to the forest, as well as an impressive bed in Titania's forest bower. Tyler M. Holland's costumes, which are based on equestrian outfits -- with military uniforms for Theseus and Hippolyta and flowing white garb for Oberon and Titania -- are attractive and suited to fast changes. Deborah Constantine's lighting, which casts a low-level green wash for the forest, is helpful in directing one's eye to the right place. Sean Hagerty's original music -- including some vaguely Russian-sounding folk tunes -- and sound design are solidly done.

In many ways, the most impressive thing about Midsummer: A Banquet is the ease with which it unfolds. Actors switch characters and costumes, the dishes arrive, and musical interludes are heard, all without breaking the overall mood of communality and good feeling. If you've enjoyed Shakespeare in the Park, chances are you'll enjoy this Shakespeare picnic; it's evening that casts a midsummer mood of merriment.--David Barbour

(12 August 2019)

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