Food might not be the primary theme one would look for in Shakespeare, but Food of Love and Third Rail Projects have hit upon it, with pleasantly surprising results, in Midsummer: A Banquet at Café Fae, an unusual performance venue just south of Union Square. From the title it’s easy to guess that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the production; it’s not easy to predict the rest.
The interior of Café Fae has white-painted, Corinthian-style columns, which fit the Athens setting of Midsummer perfectly; on one, set designer Jason Simms has added a tree stump around the base that comes in handy. The space also has an upper stage that serves as Titania’s bower.
A grazing table is set for the pre-show; it’s the first of several food interludes. Apart from the provender itself, the food theme echoes in preparation tables that are juxtaposed to form an elevated stage. The actors guide patrons to their seats and provide service as well.
The performers also play music to set the mood—first, solo guitar (Adrienne Paquin), then an ensemble consisting of trumpet and percussion (washboard, tin teapot, a rattle made of woven reeds). In faerie land, when Titania (Victoria Rae Sook) sings “Through bush, through briar” in her bower, the effect is slow and hypnotic. The couples also dance in the small space—Zach Morris, who choreographed, uses the compactness effectively, as couples pair up and slow dance. Morris also adapted and directed the play, and is credited with “visual and experience design.” The atmosphere is charming, easygoing and friendly. As Shakespeare plays go, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a chestnut, and it invites a new directorial angle. This one works.
The acting company is young, and music to match what Glenda Jackson brings to Shakespearean verse is not to be expected yet. Morris, however, has guided his performers to speak with unhurried clarity. There is scarcely a word lost, and lines that are familiar land with renewed freshness: “Reason and love keep little company together nowadays” and the speech beginning “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows” are two examples.
The lovers are charming, and the height difference between Adrienne Paquin’s Helena and Caroline Amos’s Hermia—both excellent—has been observed in Morris’s casting. Among the Athenians, Sook’s Hippolyta seems to make Ryan Wuestewald’s Theseus cower a bit too much. A sight gag with a feminist spin doesn’t quite work: when she enters with a big hunting bow, annoyed at the shakeout of the dispute about who should wed Hermia, Theseus appears frightened, although he is, after all, a warrior. And too often he looks intimidated and uneasy before they’re even married.
Several actors double as fairies and as the Rude Mechanicals, who put on Pyramus and Thisbē for the royal wedding. As fairies, they hold two candles and slowly rotate them amid Deborah Constantine’s blue lights for a magical nighttime effect. As the mechanicals, though, they have been given latitude to overplay, with uneven results. “Prologue,” pronounced “Pro-loog,” gets the cheapest of laughs, and Charles Osborne’s stentorian Bottom is egregiously loud and hammy—though his impersonation of a lion roaring like “a sucking dove” is restrained and the funnier for it.
Morris has directed the Pyramus and Thisbē scene particularly well. The chink in the wall through which Osborne’s Pyramus and Alex J. Gould’s Thisbē speak turns out to be the crotch of Snout (Joshua Gonzales). When Pyramus addresses the wall and says, “My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones,” it puts a bawdy spin on the words. And Gould’s speech as the bereft Thisbē, who finds Pyramus dead, is unexpectedly touching and heartfelt; together with his performance as Lysander, it shows an impressive range to his talent.
Emilie Baltz has designed the meals—and you can come hungry. The first “tasting” has raisin rolls, a red pepper sunflower romesco; eggplant tahini chickpea spread; lettuce for dipping; watermelon slices; a plate of Brie and prosciutto; and a herb butter. The fairies later bring “Faerie Kebabs”: smoked pickled mushrooms, green olives and a dried apricot, all on toothpicks and delivered in jars.
Later, when Demetrius (Gonzales) says, “Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow!” it’s a prompt for another food delivery: “Love Bundles” on the menu turn out to be fresh cherries tied up in green gingham-checked napkins. No matter how familiar you may be with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this unusual production is well worth a visit.
Third Rail Projects and Food of Love’s Midsummer: A Banquet plays through Sept. 7 at Café Fae (827 Broadway). Performances are at 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday; at 6 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday; and at 5 and 9 p.m. on Saturday. The only meat, dairy, or gluten served will be at the beginning and end of the show at a grazing table where the viewer can easily choose what to eat. During the show, the offerings are vegan and gluten-free. The menu does not include shellfish, tree nuts, ground nuts, or soy products. For tickets or more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit foodofloveproductions.com.