By Dan Guarino
Pairs of star-crossed lovers, spirits of mirth and mischief, summer dreams and magical kingdoms, a merry band of players stumbling through a play within a play? This could only be Shakespeare on the Beach’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which takes the stage for five free performances at Rockaway’s newest performance venue, the open-air Beach 95th Street Amphitheater.
From Wednesday through Sunday, August 16 to 20, at 7:30pm, the newly founded troupe will bring a Rockaway spin to this very classic romance/comedy at the boardwalk just off Shore Front Parkway.
While staying true to William Shakespeare’s original script, the story, staging, acting and costumes are all done with a seaside flair meant to make this play perfectly understandable, accessible and immersive for a modern audience.
Shakespeare on the Beach co-founder and director Saxon Palmer explains, the play “is about the wild and unruly course of love. In it, two societies are contrasted. (There is ‘Athens’ and the) laws of civilization and the fantastical realm of fairies where matters of the heart are more important. Four lovers run from those strict and unforgiving laws…into the enchanted forest, or onto the beach in our case, where forbidden desires are pursued, lovers are tangled up in a complicated web, and madness ensues.”
Both Palmer and co-founder Debra Ehara are no strangers to the beach, the breezes, theatre, and Shakespeare. Ehara currently teaches at Brooklyn College Academy, and has been affiliated with the Arthur Miller Foundation for Theater Education in Public Schools Scholars Program. She says, “When I’m not teaching high school English and theater, I am at the shore looking for whales and dolphins, reading, writing, biking, dipping and enjoying family.”
Besides work on all aspects of production from organization to publicity, Ehara serves as its dramaturge, the company’s expert on the script, story and background who edits, shapes and informs the show’s development and direction.
Palmer himself has appeared in film (“Limitless,” with Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro), television (“Person of Interest,” “Law & Order: SVU”) and on and off Broadway. “I’ve spent 25 years in theatre and the arts. I have worked with some of the most talented and well-known actors in the world – F. Murray Abraham, Bill Irwin, Billy Crudup, Paul Giamatti, Michael Stuhlbarg and Amy Sedaris” and many notable stage directors.
Besides numerous stage roles, his specific Shakespeare credits include “Measure for Pleasure” at The Public Theatre, “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” and title roles in “Hamlet,” “Coriolanus,” “Richard the Second,” and “Henry IV.” He has performed for over a decade with Theatre for a New Audience and developed and directed his own original ‘commedia,’ “Pantalone’s Retreat.”
“I spend a good deal of my free time with Frank, my loyal dog, on my sailboat, composing, writing, and dreaming about our next production,” Palmer said. Frank also appears in the current production, as do Ehara and Palmer.
As Palmer explains, it was during cold morning ocean dips with the NY Dippers Club this spring that they both realized “there is no Shakespeare in Rockaway. We both thought, ‘Rockaway deserves to have Shakespeare!’ From then on it was an adventure of deciding on a play, reserving the amphitheater, securing a rehearsal space, finding actors, raising money, promoting, producing, obtaining non-profit status, etc. and the Shakespeare on the Beach Theater Company was born.”
“We envisioned a theater company that made Shakespeare inclusive and accessible. Our company embraces diversity! All kinds of diversity. Diverse talent. Diverse ethnicities and races. Diverse abilities in acting. Diverse ages. We’re not going for that polished finished product. We embrace diversity and inclusion because it tells a better story.”
For those unfamiliar, that story begins with the upcoming marriage of the Duke of Athens, and Amazon Queen Hippolyta, an Amazon warrior. Meanwhile, like Romeo and Juliet, two lovers, Lysander and Hermia, are forbidden to marry. Hermia is promised instead to Demetrius, who in turn is loved madly by Helena.
All four lovers find themselves in an enchanted forest, ruled by fairy king Oberon and queen Titania and their sprightly spirit court, including meddling, mischievous Puck. Things go comically awry as Puck tries with magic to ‘fix’ these lovers’ troubles. To add to the comedy, Shakespeare introduces an earnest group of workmen, trying hilariously to rehearse and perform a play-within-a-play gone wrong for the Duke’s wedding.
“It ends,” Palmer assures, “with a triple marriage in the court of Athens, and love wins the day!”
An able cast of 15-plus has been rehearsing for about a month in an upper room at the Knights of Columbus on Beach 90th Street. They are a bright mixture of seasoned actors and first-timers, both local and from elsewhere.
During energetic and spirited rehearsals, the group has worked hard to bring out the story, making it easy to follow and understandable for all.
“The cast and crew have surprised me in ways I never imagined,” Palmer says. Produced by Patrick (‘Paddy Tubz’) Tubridy, “Dream” features music by Ted Trobaugh, design by Becca Schwab, dance/movement choreography by Barb Cool, costumes/make-up by Jillian Bernstein and stage management by Zoe Gilfix.
“There’s so much that is unique about this production,” Ehara says. Music will be a unifying thread throughout the show with original compositions and the collaboration of Saxon and Ted Trobaugh.”
Bringing it home, she notes, “It will have a very Rockaway feel to it. When deciding about costumes and design, we wanted it to look like the actors had just come off the beach. Everything should feel familiar. Our main goal is for the Rockaway community to feel like this Shakespeare is (absolutely) for them.”
And for those who are and those might not be as familiar with Shakespeare, Palmer adds “Don’t think. Just show up. We’ll surprise you!”
Shakespeare on the Beach’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs Wednesday through Sunday, August 16 to 20, 7:30 p.m., at the Beach 95th Street Amphitheater. All shows are free.
Photos by Dan Guarino.