By: Samuel L. Leiter
That whimsical playwright Douglas C. Beane
Whose comical work you perhaps may have seen
Has written a new one he calls Fairycakes
But, take it from me, it ain’t no great shakes.
Though based on the Dream by old Will Shakespeare
It’ll rattle your head and zing your ear
Since much of it’s written in doggerel verse
Than list’ning to which not much could be worse.
Not to be blamed for a similar crime
Here’s where I show I can stop on a dime.
October 28, 2021: To be fair, Douglas Carter Beane (As Bees in Honey Drown, The Nance) also brings his versifying to a stop, but not until he’s well into act two of this two-and-a-quarter-hour parody of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play, which recently opened at Off Broadway’s Greenwich House Theatre, is a silly, sweet-natured, but DOA takeoff in the Ridiculous Theatre vein, albeit with a minimum of gay-oriented campiness.
Fortunately, while it falls short of being a full-out musical, Fairycakes includes several songs set to charming music by Lewis Flinn, Mr. Beane’s husband, and has a first-rate cast with Broadway-quality singing voices. It often seems like a children’s theatre show blown up to adult proportions, especially as directed by Mr. Beane and choreographed by associate director Ellenore Scott, who present it as if the audience was, emotionally, no older than ten.
Mr. Beane has extracted certain fairy characters from MSND: Peaseblossum (Kristolyn Lloyd), Moth (Jackie Hoffman), Mustardseed (Ann Harada), and Cobweb (Z Infante), as well as Puck (Chris Myers), a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow, and, of course, their king and queen, Oberon (Arnie Burton) and Titania (Julie Halston). All but Myers play other roles as well.
Then, as if he was stirring the cauldron in Macbeth, he’s tossed in a bunch of fairytale characters from Disney films: Geppetto (Mo Rocca), Pinocchio (Sabatino Cruz), Mermaid (Harada), Cinderella (Kuhoo Verma), her Stepmother (Jamen Nanthakumar) and Stepsisters (Cruz and Rocca), Prince (Jason Tam), Aurora—Sleeping Beauty to you—(Verma), Cricket (Nanthakumar), Cupid (Tam), and Dirk Dead-Eye (Burton), a pirate from the world of Peter Pan. There’s also Queen Elizabeth I (Halston). I can’t recall when Disney deigned to animate her, but she does take time to justify her presence by citing lines in Shakespeare’s play that she insists are personal references.
Discord over the presence of the Changeling (Jamen Nanthakumar) has roiled the bliss of Titania and Oberon’s nuptial bower. (The Changeling has been transformed from Shakespeare’s boy to a handsome young stud.) The regal pair, therefore, has decided to split. In Mr. Beane’s fairyland that means all their fairy offspring will die by a certain magical deadline, so Puck and Peaseblossum (whom the loving Puck calls “Fairycakes”) set out to reunite the couple. Meanwhile, Puck, using a flower on which Cupid’s arrow has landed, creates a mélange of romantic mix-ups like those in Shakespeare’s play, albeit with different characters. Here’s where the gay shtick comes in.
All of this is played amid the lush greenery of Shoko Kambara and Adam Crinson’s bewitching forest setting, romantically lit by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. Most appealing are Gregory Gale’s colorfully elaborate costumes, including having the fairies fitted with wings requiring careful staging to prevent physical mishaps on the crowded stage.
When I attended, Peaseblossum’s wings got screwed up when she tried passing through a door, so the actress, Ms. Lloyd, backed off into the wings for a reset. Meanwhile, those already onstage, Mr. Burton and Ms. Halston, shared knowing glances with the audience and repeated their previous lines until Ms. Lloyd was able to navigate her entrance properly. For all I know, this is a nightly bit, since it got the biggest laugh, apart from a fleeting reference to a certain disgraced producer I can’t find in the script.
But I found little laughter in the actors’ high-energy, vocally high-pitched hijinks, requiring them—at least for a long while—to speak in verse sometimes so badly rhymed that they sometimes slyly let us know they agree, as if it’s all part of the fun. When “oughta” is forced to rhyme with “shmata,” you know the rag has worn thin.
Wink-wink performances that take the audience into the spirit of the show can only go so far, and you don’t have to wait long before you start looking at your watch, wondering how you’re going to sit through the rest of it. You may even begin pondering the nature of comedy, as in why is the guy next to you barking like a seal at even the most obvious gags while you’re doing all you can simply not to gag? And by the way, where was he when act two began?
It’s uncommon to see a dozen actors on a small Off-Broadway stage, and even rarer when so many are as well-known as, for example, Ms. Halston, Ms. Hoffman, Ms. Harada, and Mr. Burton. Each of these commits him or herself to the project with professional pizzazz; it’s impossible to ignore their skill at making lead look like gold, but their alchemy can only go so far.
The second act calms down a bit when the play takes a new turn as it shifts from enchantment to disenchantment, verse turns to prose (to the characters’ mildly amusing discomfort), and love’s vagaries are allowed to play out naturally sans the wizardry of charmed flowers and the like.
Beane’s homilies about true love are well-intended, but if the playwright really loved us he’d have lopped at least an hour off this mid-autumn night’s scream.
Greenwich House Theatre
27 Barrow St., NYC
Through January 2, 2022
Photography: Mathew Murphy