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Not long ago, in a storage facility in Baltimore, a 1200-square-foot University of South Carolina-designed festival stage idled as it had for two-going-on-three years, waiting, patiently, for its D.C. debut.
Finally, the National Building Museum and Folger Theatre have been able to put that stage to use at the center of their summer programming as cultural institutions everywhere re-embrace the public. This stage—temporarily housed in the museum’s palatial Great Hall—anchors “The Playhouse,” the latest iteration of NBM’s summer installations. It’s also hosting Folger’s first post-lockdown William Shakespeare production, a 90-minute adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Until Aug. 28, audiences are invited to “enter the dream”—surrounded by what production designer Tony Cisek says is the entire North American supply of the material used to make the set’s deep blue drapery—and get acquainted with a Folger in transition.
“We were literally in the forest for a while,” Folger Theatre artistic director Karen Ann Daniels says of the pandemic, referencing the forest where Midsummer takes place. “The closer we seem to have gotten to this moment, the more and more relevant it really feels to invite people into a space to sort of process that. Sometimes you do have to go into the forest to actually figure [it] out. Doesn’t matter who did it. Was it fairies? Was it God? This space can be transformative for us as human beings to come into the physical space of the museum, to go into this show that invites us to sort of detach our life a little bit for a short period of time.”
When Folger last put on Midsummer in 2016, veteran D.C. director Aaron Posner shined with a well-reviewed, characteristically outside-the-box, and music-forward show (the Washington Post’s Peter Marks called it “uber-witty”). It was typical of Folger’s in-house productions—punchy, intimate, and at home in its space.
With Folger’s Elizabethan theater closed for a multiyear renovation, the current Midsummer production is a challenge and an opportunity for the institution to flex its creative muscles outside of its trademark Tudor wheelhouse. Still, it is acutely aware that this Midsummer opened not only in a new space, but in a very different city. In an effort to meet audiences where they are following the worst of the pandemic (we hope), Folger’s creative team made serious cuts and rearrangements to the show.
“When you are taking a two-and-a-half to three-hour play, and making it 90 minutes, you know that you’re going to be taking some wild liberties,” Folgers’ resident dramaturg Michele Osherow tells City Paper. “An adaptation is never trying to duplicate an original. It’s trying to take that original and do something else with it. Because of the timing of this piece, after COVID, because the goal of the production was to get people back into the theater, it seemed to me that this was a great opportunity to focus … on what Midsummer is saying about theater itself, which is something that draws me to the play anyway.”
When Osherow, who also did dramaturgy on the 2016 production, first sat down with director Victor Malana Maog to discuss how to interpret the play for 2022, they were excited to focus on “the magic of theater and theater art.” The finished product foregrounds enchantment, asking audiences to “dream a little dream.”
Midsummer is centered around the marriage of Theseus (Rotimi Agbabiaka), the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta (Nubia M. Monks), Queen of the Amazons. The upcoming wedding will feature a performance of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, as staged by six incompetent actors known as “mechanicals.” Subplots focus on love in the Athenian court and in the mystical forest ruled by Oberon (Agbabiaka) and Titania (Monks—it’s common for Midsummer productions to double cast Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania.) Puck (Danaya Esperanza), a mischievous sprite, and other fairies meddle with the humans’ love lives in advance of the wedding. Drama and hilarity ensue.
For this show, Osherow and Maog constructed a production that climaxes at the players’ rehearsal of Pyramus and Thisbe in the forest. And this time it’s Oberon rather than Titania who falls in love with an ass-headed Bottom (Jacob Ming-Trent). Osherow says that the queer visibility is part of what she hopes will be a “love fest.” It also gave her the chance to put Titania in charge of the forest.
“I love the Oberon/Titania switch, because, let’s face it, he behaves horribly in that play,” Osherow says. “It’s a play in which he sexually shames her. It’s a terrible story.”
It was important for Osherow to unpack what it meant to put Titania in Oberon’s place because, to her, it needed to mean something else.
“I wasn’t interested in a Titania that also engaged in sexual shaming, that doesn’t do anything for me as a woman to feel like there’s female empowerment going on there,” explains Osherow. “And there were moments—like when Helena [Renea S. Brown] says, ‘let me be your spaniel,’ to Demetrius [Bryan Barbarin]. What does it mean when a woman is in charge watching another woman behave that way?”
In this version, Titania watches over the Helena/Demetrius scene and says “ooh girl, no.”
Osherow sums up: “Given the incredibly diverse cast we have, the fact that we are in this new space trying to reach new audiences, let’s not pretend that a woman on her knees as a dog is funny, and let’s not pretend that ‘lily white of hue’ is everybody’s standard of beauty.”
Maog and Osherow’s interpretation also addresses iniquities of class and hierarchy. Osherow paraphrased the line, “I’m a fairy of no uncommon rate,” explaining that characters in this show have an equalizing power. Osherow interpreted that line to mean “I can make you a part of this elite group as well.”
Maog expands on that, saying, “at the core of my production are the mechanicals, the lowest citizens in the play. But they take on elements of magic and humor that begin to elevate these folks that we might marginalize. In my production, they become fairies as well.”
This choice reflects Maog’s own path to embracing Shakespeare’s canon. Growing up in the Philippines and the Bay Area, Maog says Shakespeare didn’t always feel accessible to him. Describing the 16th-century playwright as “for other people” he admits, “I never thought it was a space that would welcome me, let alone hire me.”
It took Maog decades to cultivate a relationship with the Bard. He asked himself: “Who does Shakespeare belong to? And how do I have a relationship with this incredible catalog of works?” At a certain point, he moved from casually attending Shakespeare productions to pursuing intensive study at Shakespeare & Company, a renowned theater company based in Lenox, Massachusetts, and suddenly the relationship clicked.
Maog is far from alone in feeling alienated by Shakespeare. The Folger’s main building is an art deco treasure that falls victim to its success as an architectural undertaking. Though it blends in next to the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress—especially the Adams Building right next door—it’s uninviting.
Daniels, the artistic director, describes her first experience with the Folger building, which houses the theater, library, exhibition space, and research facilities, as feeling as if it was “built to look like a repository.” When the renovations end in 2023, audiences can expect a more welcoming space.
“The idea is like, what is this?” Daniels ponders. “I think we’re trying to answer that, for a wider public, so that when people are driving by or walking by, they understand that what is in this repository is actually made to be accessed and used … the heart of this is just about accessibility in the broadest sense possible. This is a welcoming place. And I think that’s where this really begins and ends as a project for us.”
For Daniels, the goals of the Folger’s renovation and its inviting interpretation of Midsummer complement each other.
“Coming into the National Building Museum with a blank slate and having that opportunity to really think about what’s the kind of show that could be in this space, to live in this space—that we could breathe life into it in a new way … I think it’s been a really long road, but a really good lesson for us as an institution, who is in the middle of a real, real physical transformation of our original building, but then also, that is reflective of where we are spiritually, too.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare, directed by Victor Malana Maog, plays at the National Building Museum through August 28. folger.edu. $20–$85.
The Playhouse is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays, until August 28 and is included with admission to the National Building Museum. On August 11 and 12 at 12:30 p.m., comic book maker Evan Keeling leads a family-friendly bookmaking workshop; on Aug. 12 at 6:30 p.m., cast members Barbarin and Brown host Brews & Banter Pre-Show Talk, a casual conversation over complimentary craft beer.