This outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, returning to the East Village Friday for a final three-day run, won’t remind you at all of eighth grade English. Maybe because the fairies are all drugged out and the forest has become a rave den, or because the lovers are Park Slope trust-fund kids, and the Wall is a spoken-word performer. Whichever way you squint at it, like the unfortunate Bottom, the entire play has been “translated”—in this case into a contemporary New York City setting.
“We wanted to have things that were a little bit edgy,” explains Eleah Burman, who’s producing the play with Ilona Concetta. “A little bit different, a little bit more unique—that we would connect to, and we thought that other audiences would connect to.”
She and Concetta graduated from Tisch in May 2013, and started Quirky Productions at the end of that year, expressly in order to be able to act together, and to “give displaced twenty-somethings a space and opportunity to perform and flourish.” This is their second production, after a successful run of Beyond Therapy earlier in the year.
In addition to producing and directing the Shakespeare adaptation, which premiered last weekend, both Burman and Concetta are also acting in it. Burman has taken the role of Hermia, while Concetta plays Helena. This in itself was reason enough to put on the play: both actors would usually be cast as the short, fiery Hermia. Producing their own version means the diminutive Concetta gets the chance to take on notably lofty Helena, and the two friends are able to share scenes.
Having the two female leads played by similarly built actors is perhaps the least remarkable of the changes; in this version of the classic, Demetrius is addicted to cocaine, while the wily, witty Puck is a drug dealer. And in a somewhat genius twist, the laughably silly characters of the Mechanicals—the troupe of actors who intend to perform a play for the marriage of the Duke—become pretentious hipsters from Williamsburg.
“It was kind of natural, because the mechanicals are all very cocky and full of themselves for no apparent reason since they’re doing this very terrible play,” says Burman. “It was an easy transition to have these people who are doing performance art or word art—people who just feel that their art is the only art, and of course the king would love it, and of course he’s accept it, and the idea of him shunning it is not even a question…I think it translates well, especially for people who knows what hipsters are.”
That last category includes, I would hazard, most of New York. And that’s exactly the point. Transferring the Shakespearian comedy into the modern-day metropolis, Burman says, “gets people more engaged and more thinking about how it connects to their lives.”
“With this production, you get to see the dark dreariness, but you also get to see the full-of-life and magical-ness of the show… the struggles and the weariness; the stupidity of the love of the characters,” she says. “You can watch and say, those are problems that I have, that’s ridiculous.” Ah indeed. What fools we mortals be!
Shakespeare may have been left scratching his head at the hipster references, but he certainly would have approved of the open-air (and open-to-all) setting: First Street Green Park in the East Village.
“It’s covered in graffiti, and homeless people wander in and out and throw comments back to you,” says Burman. “Like when Bottom was dying in his speech in the play within the play, some homeless man kept going, ‘He’s not dead yet, he’s not dead yet.’” She chuckles. “That guy was just my favorite person we’ve ever had in our audience. By far he was my favorite audience member.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will play at First Street Green Park (1st Street between 1st and 2nd avenues, Manhattan) at 7pm on July 25, 26, 27. FREE—although Burman notes, “we also pass around a Trader Joe’s bag for donations.” Reserve tickets here.