Theater archives

Peer Gynt and Midsummer Night’s Dream Hit New York Parks


In Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare takes a dim view of nature: “The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull,” he proclaims. Despite this dire pronouncement, each summer, troupes of actors return to woods, gardens, parks, and plazas with the aim of performing plays, often Shakespeare’s. At least half a dozen companies crisscross the city offering plein air productions. Audiences must brave mosquitoes, heat, rainstorms, and the insidious jingle of Mister Softee, whose trucks seem to revel in disrupting the classics.

While most shows are content to let spectators lounge on blankets and balled-up sweaters, Gorilla Rep has long preferred a more vigorous style of performance. Since 1992, artistic director Christopher Carter Sanderson has demanded that audiences race along from scene to scene, leaping over hill and dale and occasional startled dog walker to catch the next bit of action. All this bustle seemed rather tiring and extraneous during a recent and very humid production of Peer Gynt set upon Summit Rock in Central Park. Certainly, much of Ibsen’s play takes place outdoors, and Peer himself travels often in the course of it. But the various patches of trees and grass that Sanderson had selected much resembled one another, making the chase from one to the next unrewarding. Distracted by the infelicities of Laura Lynn MacDonald’s adaptation and various bug bites, my scamper eventually slowed to a trudge.

The indefatigable Sanderson, sporting a belt ringed with lights, was always in the lead, hurrying the dozen or so viewers on to the next location. But his energy might have been better spent on more rehearsals: The younger Peer often had difficulty with his speeches; lines spoken in unison weren’t; the dances demanded better choreography. At the play’s end, Peer returns to Norway and his beloved Solveig, wishing he’d just stayed put. Doubtless some of the audience could sympathize.

On a day with a much improved weather forecast, nearly 200 locals gathered in Morningside Park to watch a play set, as the program put it, in “Athens, NYC.” The Pulse Ensemble Theatre, in its fifth season of “Harlem Summer Shakespeare,” presented a mostly modern-dress production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this version, Helena is a Gossip Girl; Lysander is a hip-hopper; Bottom is a dumpster-diver; and the fairies are clothed as some species of disco insect.

Alexa Kelly has directed a cheerfully vulgar production, in which most of the text is rendered intact, though it’s all spoken at double speed with broad gestures. Sure, subtlety and poetry are mangled, but the comedy held most of the spectators—including various distractible children—more or less rapt. Some adolescents to my right seemed particularly interested in the corseted Mustardseed and Peaseblossom.

Kelly might have refined the blocking and the unbearably screechy sound system, and declined to include so many instances of gay panic, in which men accidentally kiss or embrace and are horrified by it. Still, when the ice cream truck rolled by, I didn’t notice any kids running off. They thought Shakespeare better than soft-serve. High praise.