Tag Archives: Public Theater

Shakespeare in the Park: Merry Wives

The Merry Wives of Windsor — Shakespeare’s only play that centers around everyday working folk — is a wonderful selection for the Public Theater’s 2021 offering.  This production arrives after a difficult stretch which renewed awareness of our neighbors and neighborhoods.  For this rendition, the location has been dropped from the title and the spouses in question have been moved to South Harlem.  There, Farai Malianga engages with the audience as a congenial street drummer.   After a quick lesson in African diaspora, he ushers in the local residents who will share their story.  Layabout John Falstaff has grown weary of his VR light saber and nutrition-free snacking and is ready to get out and mingle.  He has his eye on Mmes Ekua Page and Nkechi Ford, two close friends with husbands of means. Even his wooing is lazy and he sends the exact same love letter to them both.  Thankfully they are clever bad ass women who know how to handle themselves.  Ekua has the additional responsibility of finding a suitable match for her beautiful daughter, Anne.  She has her heart set on the prestigious Doctor Caius, while Mr Ford has selected Slender, a sweet but rather simple young man.  But like her mother, Anne has a mind of her own and her lover of choice is not negotiable.  

Jacob Ming-Trent as Falstaff and Susan Kelechi Watson as Madam Ford in Merry Wives

Saheem Ali’s staging takes advantage of the Delacorte’s airy space, filling it with the vibrant energy of his enthusiastic ensemble.  Jacob Ming-Trent is a total joy as a noisy, brash, and notorious-in-his-own-mind Falstaff.  His journey via laundry basket has never been funnier.  There is such warmth and charm in his performance, one feels a bit sorry about his treatment at the hands of far wittier Wives.  Susan Kelechi Watson’s Madam Ford grabs attention with her fabulous moves while Pascale Armand’s Madam Page is a commanding and calculating conspirator.  Both employ West African accents which add flavor though may present a challenge for unaccustomed ears.   Shola Adewusi as Mama Quickly and David Ryan Smith as the dapper doc make the most of their two dimensional characters with their impeccable timing.

Ghanaian-American writer Jocelyn Bioh has condensed Shakespeare’s comedy to a brisk 110 minutes and spiced up the language with modern slang and appropriate cultural references from jollof rice to Dreamgirls.  Upbeat musical cues by composer Michael Thurber as well as Dede Ayite’s brilliant outfits set off with hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan punch up the energy.  Stagehands outfitted as sanitation workers work speedily to redress the backgrounds.  The colorfully rendered settings by Broadway vet Beowulf Boritt  include a hair braiding salon, laundromat, family clinic and walkup apartment house, though nothing tops the natural beauty of the park itself, revealed in its natural splendor for the final scene.

The material is not the only part of the equation that is an appropriate match to this moment.  While much of the venue is seated at full capacity, sections are reserved for those who prefer to remain masked and distanced.  A fleet of volunteers help everyone find their place quickly and enforce protocols as needed.  The touchless program is accessed using a QR code on the seatback.  

The entirety of Merry Wives is a celebration of life, tolerance, and togetherness.  It is a love letter to New York and New Yorkers and a wonderful excuse to share a belly laugh in a crowd after a long stretch in isolation.  In particular, it is a fitting tribute to the residents of Seneca Village, the 19th Century Black community that lived on the land that is now occupied by Central Park.  Performances have been extended through September 20.  Visit https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2021/sitp/merry-wives/ for free ticketing information.

Fire in Dreamland

There is a burning spark at the center of Fire in Dreamland, Rinne Groff’s new play which opened at the Public Theater last night. It comes in the form of Rebecca Naomi Jones who pours everything she has into the central role of Kate. Kate is sad and frustrated, desperate to fulfill her promise to her father to do something meaningful with her life. She finally finds inspiration and hope when she meets Jaap, a European would-be filmmaker in New York on a student visa. In total contrast to Kate, Jaap is completely focused on a passion project: a film he’s conceived based on the true story of the fire that destroyed the flashy Dreamland Amusement Park at Coney Island in 1911. Kate is consumed by Jaap’s enthusiasm and charisma, throwing herself body, soul, and bank account into his vision.

The mostly linear story opens with a direct confession to the audience and is interspersed with startling glimpses into the past, punctuated by bright lights and the sound of a film clapboard. As Kate struggles to find her life’s purpose, she identifies first with Dreamland’s Nubian lion who escaped a fiery circus tent only to be shot by police and also with the mermaid-clad carnival worker who led a herd of ponies to safety. Similar to last season’s film and critical darling Florida, there is also a more important story on the edges of Coney Island involving a housing project damaged in Superstorm Sandy.  The metaphors keep piling up until — to add one more — the play becomes a large Amazon box filled with air bubble cushions protecting a six pack of batteries and a pair of tube socks. It’s a lot to unpack for a somewhat disappointing outcome.

Enver Gjokaj and Rebecca Naomi Jones; Photo by Joan Marcus

Enver Gjokaj and Rebecca Naomi Jones; Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ms. Jones is on stage for almost the entire hour and 40 minute run time. The amount of energy and dedication she gives to sharing her character’s process of reinvention is impressive. Enver Gjokaj does not quite match her in intensity,  bringing insufficient magnetism to the role of Jaap. Rounding out the cast, Kyle Beltran is outstanding as the idiosyncratic Lance, Jaap’s dedicated assistant director who appears to be on the spectrum sexually and emotionally. (It’s a shame he does not join the action until an hour into the performance. I could have enjoyed an entire play about this multi faceted character.)

Groff’s script has the same uneasy mixture of the random and the planned that is swirling around in Kate’s brain. There are moments of humor as the playwright makes good use of the communication gaps that stem from both language and gender differences. Unfortunately there is also a credibility gap in a filmmaker having envisioned every shot seemingly without any knowledge of how to bring any of it to fruition.  It is hard to believe Jaap could be Kate’s catalyst for change. There are moments of truth that shine through, but a number of scenes seemed forced and contrived. Director Marissa Wolf making her New York debut has a clever touch and uses the three-quarter round space beautifully. The weaker plot points are propped up by the imaginative lighting design of Amith Chandrashaker, whose work also gave clarity to [Porto]. Susan Hilferty’s boardwalk inspired set and whimsical wardrobe lend an appropriate carnival vibe to the proceedings. Original music by Brendon Aanes is invaluable, particularly in orchestrating a vivid soliloquy that becomes more of a movie than anything Jaap is ever likely to produce.

While there is a great deal of artistic merit to this production of Fire in Dreamland, it still seems like a project in development. Whether like Kate you wish to take a leap into this story will depend on how much you value the creative process even when the results are mixed.  It plays through August 6 at The Public Theater.  For tickets and information visit https://www.publictheater.org/Public-Theater-Season/Fire-in-Dreamland/