Review: A Dreamy Adaption for a Midwinter Night’s Entertainment


If you are seeking further proof that Shakespeare is a universal language, pliable to different cultures, aesthetics and genres, look no further than the O’Reilly Theater. 

On opening night of Pittsburgh Public Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem, given a little encouragement to hoot and holler like it’s the 1600s, the audience went wild, cheering on the antics and artistry onstage.

Jaris Owens as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem, an adaptation by Justin Emeka at Pittsburgh Public Theater. (Images by Michael Henninger)

You know this isn’t your typical telling of the tale when the bumbling Bottom, played with admirable conceit by Andre G. Brown, is feigning death and cries out, “I’m coming, Elizabeth!,” followed by the roar of the crowd.

It was not just that many of us are of a certain age, or that streaming has allowed a lot of folks to catch up on ’70s sitcoms. It was one of many times the audience erupted into laughter and applause, filling the O’Reilly with a party atmosphere.

To get the party started, Pittsburgher Akinlana Lowman delivered a lightning drum beat and the cast chanted, “Athens is Harlem, Athens is Harlem …,” a verbal relocating of the bookended scenes around the enchanted Forest of Arden. 

Director/adapter Justin Emeka’s vision lands the story in modern day, judging by characters’ urban streetwear and New York City signage at the intersection of 125th and “African” streets (unobtrusively symbolic because 125th Street was central to the Harlem Renaissance and is the site of the Apollo Theater).

Even before revealing some surprises, the striking set by designer Anka Lupes earned its share of oohs and aahs. Lighting and projections constantly transform a humongous hair pick that crests in a raised fist, while a gigantic head hovers over the stage, keeping watch over the mystical proceedings below.

While the spoken words are mostly Shakespeare’s in this raucous retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this is clearly not a word-for-word, scene-to-scene match for the original. 

This lyrical, musical mashup of young love, lust and mischief-making does preserve some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, including the one that best sums up the play: 

“The course of true love never did run smooth.”

Andre G. Brown as Bottom. in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Michael Henninger)

The character of Lysander says this to show that his love for the fair Hermia is stronger than that of Demetrius, who has been chosen to wed Hermia by her father. Dad’s word is the law, and thus, Lysander and Hermia run away, pursued by Demetrius. Also in the mix is Helena, who loves Demetrius, despite all of his efforts to push her away.

Their destination is through the forest, and that’s where things take a magical turn.

That also is the setup that Shakespeare put ink to papyrus, and mostly how it plays out in the Harlem version.

However, in the production at hand, Lysander is Lysandra, played by Amara Granderson – a mini-dynamo and a Chita Rivera Award recipient last year as part of the ensemble in the Tony-nominated for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf.

Granderson is a standout among a nimble quartet of young lovers, often lusters in this case. Be advised, it gets bawdy out there. 

Hermia is played by Saige Smith, the in-demand Pittsburgh actress who with Granderson lives up to Shakespeare’s description: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Like Smith, Brenden Peifer, who has lately taken up residence at the Public (as seen in wo Trains Running and A Raisin in the Sun), is deceptively agile and all attitude as Demetrius. He gives Helena the brushoff, not yet getting that hee met his soulmate  That will come much later.

Played by recent Point Park graduate June Alvida Amonte. Helena brushes off Demetrius’ insults and pursues him into the forest,.

June Alvilda Almonte and Saige Smith, as Helena and Hermia.

That’s where matters go off the rails for these lovers, often hilariously so. 

In case you don’t know the story, suffice it to say, Oberon (Keith Lee Grant), the king of the fairies, sends his faithful servant, the mischievous sprite Puck, to administer a love potion to his wife, Queen Titania (Portia, late of Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mocking Bird). Back in Harlem, the regal couple double as Theseus and Hipplyta, whose impending wedding set he story in motion.

When Oberon sees Helena and Demetrius arguing, the king takes pity on Helena and decides to give Demetrius a potion as well, but Puck errs, the plan goes awry … and, well, it’s a Shakespearean comedy, so we know that all will be well in the end.

Also headed into the woods is a group of workers who have joined forces as an amateur acting troupe. They leave the city for a quiet space to prepare a performance to impress Theseus and Hippolyta. These six – E. Mani Cadet as Quince (also, Hermia’s strident dad), Harry J. Hawkins IV as Flute, Richard McBride as Starveling, Brian Starks as Snug, Marshall Weir Mabry IV as Snout and Andre G. Brown as Bottom – deliver a comedic hip-hop vibe and earn many of the night’s big laughs.

They act mostly as a band of bumbling brothers, until Bottom makes a literal ass of himself, with lots of help from Jaris Owens’ Puck. Decked out in bright red and black, Owens’ version of Puck is a bit more wise and witty than the sometimes wacky portrayals (well, Mickey Rooney’s), a manipulator who shrugs off his mistakes and admires his work. 

The three fairies – on this night, Hope M. Anthony, Chrisala M. Brown and Calina Womack – are calming influences, singing and swirling in unison, distinctive in their Africana-drenched costumes and headdresses, representative of the distinctive designs by Demeatria Boccella.

The design team, including Lupes, Jared Gooding (lighting), Zach Moore (sound and projection) and Tenel Dorsey (hair and wigs), expand and enhance the “Athens is Harlem” concept and playful atmosphere. A uniting part of that concept is hair – intricate braids or natural, covered or bared – that is representative of the all-BIPOC cast.

It’s a bit obvious to relate this production, featuring an all-Black cast, to Black History Month. Perhaps related, what the style and fashion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem brought to mind, was the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, celebrated at the Grammys, in a Hip-Hop Museum being built in The Bronx and in a current style exhibition at the Museum of Fashion in New York.

I also couldn’t stop thinking about, as I watched this celebration of Black American and African cultures, the places in the United States where the study of Black history is being suppressed

With that in mind, it struck a chord when artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski, in her pre-show greeting, invited us to raise our voices in appreciation for what we were about to see, as a sort of bridge to the uninhibited audiences of Shakespeare’s day.

The Public’s production runs a quick hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, and ends with a bit of a dance party onstage.

Thinking back to where the night began, the set had displayed a quote from a Langston Hughes poem, a reminder as we took our seats to “hold fast to dreams.” How apt, when what we were about to see was painted with a palette of unabashed cultural influences and laugh-out-loud fun. In a word, dreamy.

Calina Womack, Chrisala M. Brown and Hope M. Anthony in Pittsburgh Public Theater’ production’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem (Michael Henninger)

If your dreams are anything like the romp and pomp of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem, that’s just plain dreamy.

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem is at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown, through Feb. 19. Tickets and details: https://ppt.org/production/78797/a-midsummer-nights-dream-in-harlem or call 412-316-1600.

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