By Kevin Zimmerman
Sometime during the later part of the 20th-century, theater troupes started to tweak Shakespearean productions by performing them in modern dress, or setting them during World War II or even switching genders of some of the characters.
These updated versions have enjoyed various degrees of success. Some have been lauded by critics and audiences, while others have been called out as gimmicky and dismissed.
Titan Theatre Co. has now weighed in with its unique version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” at the Secret Theatre through Nov. 3.
Matthew Foster as Puck welcomes the audience, while each of the other eight actors lines up behind him awaiting their fate for that evening. Puck then calls out the names of each performer as an audience members plucks a slip of paper from a hat he holds. On each slip are the names of a major and minor character and those are the parts each actor takes on that night.
There’s no denying it’s all a bit gimmicky, but the nine performers playing the 16 parts make it all work beautifully.
Making each of the actors, besides Foster, learn every part provides ample opportunities for catastrophe. And it is possible that later in the run, confusion might set in and someone who’s played Helena twice might start speaking her lines instead of those of Lysander. But on opening night the entire cast played as though they had been rehearsing those specific roles for the last few weeks.
The two standouts, however, were the individuals forced to take on roles of the opposite sex.
Alexis Black shines in the dual roles of Lysander, the young lad in love with Hermia, and Flute, one of the tradesmen who performs as part of the wedding festivities for Theseus and Hippolyta late in the play.
Physically, Black does little more than pin her long hair up to appear more masculine, but she nails the mannerisms, movement and speech pattern of a man fighting for his love. She does an even better job as Flute, one of the rag-tag actors forced to take on the lone female part in the play within the play. Demoralized by having to be a girl, Black captures the anger and frustration of an actor believing he is not being used properly in the production.
As Thisbe in the play within the play — about the tragic lovers Pyramus and Thisbe who inspired “Romeo and Juliet” — Black provides some of the evening’s biggest laughs. Wearing a mop as a wig, Black adopts a falsetto voice to recite her lines in a bored manner, while striking an exaggerated model’s pose. But when the action of the smaller play takes a sorrowful tone, Black amazes with a subtle and heartbreaking turn that leaves the giggling behind.
The other gender-bender, Gregory Isaac as Titana, the fairy queen, and Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, also scores high marks for his performances.
Again with very little physical changes, Isaac slips easily into part of the scorned fairy queen, forced by magic to fall in love with an actor who’s been turned into a donkey.
Isaac perfectly captures the rhythm and style of the two queens he must encompass. He, too, earns big laughs as he swoons for Nick Bottom, after he’s turned into a jackass.
As Bottom, Sean Hudock brilliantly portrays a bad actor, which is not an easy thing to do, both as the man and as the donkey.
Director Lenny Banovez keeps a light touch on the action and allows this one-act version to simply fly by during the 90-minute production.
If You Go
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
TITAN Theatre Co. at The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd St., Long Island City
When: Through Nov. 3
Cost: $15 – $18
Contact: (718) 392-0722