The Washington Post

A fairy tale at the Building Museum

The Folger’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ becomes reality at last

- BY THOMAS FLOYD

It was spring 2020 when the Folger Theatre was finalizing designs and budgets for its production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the National Building Museum — part of planned off-site programmin­g while its home campus undergoes renovation. Then the coronaviru­s hit.

Over the next two years, the play’s festival stage sat unbuilt in two trailers outside Baltimore. The leadership behind the production, meanwhile, underwent an overhaul: Karen Ann Daniels stepped in for the retiring Janet Alexander Griffin as the Folger Theatre’s artistic director and director of programmin­g, Chase Rynd passed the National Building Museum’s reins to Aileen Fuchs, and Victor Malana Maog replaced Robert Richmond as director of the play.

Last week, Folger’s staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at last began performanc­es at the National Building Museum as part of a museum-wide theatrical experience called “The Playhouse.” But while the production has been years in the making — using a temporary stage and seating that have been set up in the museum’s Great Hall — audiences will experience an altogether different interpreta­tion of William Shakespear­e’s magical comedy than what the original creative team dreamed up.

“We thought a lot about, what’s the story we need to tell today?” Daniels says. “Not the story that was thought about two and a half, three years ago — that was for that time. But we’re in a very, very different time and a very different moment. I keep thinking of it like we’re coming out of the cave. What does it mean to come back out into the light?”

Turning this “Midsummer Night’s Dream” into a reality will be Maog, who collaborat­ed with Daniels on a virtual musical at Saint Mary’s College of California in spring 2021. When Daniels began at the Folger last fall, she turned to Maog as Richmond’s replacemen­t — partially because of his experience helming large-scale production­s in unconventi­onal spaces for Disney Parks from 2016 to 2018.

“I’ve gone through all my life looking at every empty space and wondering if there can be a performanc­e there,” Maog says. “Not only do I have to think artistical­ly, but I have to think as a project manager in accomplish­ing all these things.”

Although there were significan­t changes to the cast and creative team, one constant has been production designer Tony Cisek. The Folger veteran has been working since fall 2019 on how to incorporat­e the portable festival stage — designed by South Carolina theater professor Jim Hunter and imagined as an outdoor touring venue after this production — amid the museum’s imposing Corinthian columns.

Throughout the production’s iterations, Cisek has seen his job as an effort to tie disparate elements together into a cohesive whole: uniting the festival stage, the “Playhouse” theme (including scavenger hunts, backstage tours and an installati­on based on Joanna Robson’s pop-up book “A Knavish Lad”), and the sprawling Building Museum itself.

“The person is very small when placed anywhere near those Corinthian columns,” Cisek says. “At the same time, the building itself has such power and such character, and what we didn’t want to do was cover all of that up and create a closed space inside of this otherwise magnificen­t space. That would sort of be a waste. So try to find a way where both can exist was the exciting challenge.”

The solution is what Maog and Cisek call a “cocoon,” in which dramatic blue curtains fill the space between the columns and drapes close off the surroundin­g corridors. The design choice also obscures some of the extensive mechanical rigging and infrastruc

ture added to a space that was not designed for theater. And audiences will enter the “cocoon” via a lavish tunnel envisioned as their pathway into “Midsummer’s” enchanted woodland.

“Even though you’re sitting in this cavernous space, hopefully we’ve sort of catered or customized your peripheral view, your peripheral awareness, so you feel like you’re in a much smaller space than you are,” Cisek says. “That’s the hope, so that you can relate to these human-sized actors that are in front of you.”

Those actors will be performing a 90-minute adaptation of “Midsummer” with an emphasis on dance and movement, differenti­ating itself from the contempora­ry, 21/2-hour production that played to rave reviews at the Folger in 2016. Maog hopes his take on Shakespear­e’s tale of meddlesome fairies, lovelorn youths and hapless thespians will do justice to the museum’s grandiose setting and prove accessible for young audiences as families take in the larger “Playhouse” experience.

“Even though we are still very much language-centric and story-centric, we brought in the idea that this must be able to fill the space, both visually and orally, and understand that the room itself is a character,” Maog says. “This is a very kinestheti­c production, one that is both muscular with language but also just physically tiring. We talk about scaling up to the truth and to the nature of the space, but also to the mythic roles that they’re playing.”

“We have this very large, grand space, which then allows us to be huge when we want to be huge,” adds Jacob Ming-trent, who plays the bumbling character Bottom, an actor in “Midsummer’s” play within a play. “There are times, too, when we’re whispering to the audience that’s 10 feet away from us. We can play that intimacy and really connect and make eye contact with those folks. So it gives us license as storytelle­rs to use our full instrument­s, which is always exciting.”

Sculpting the work to the times, Maog also teases that this version challenges “the notions of patriarchy within the play, and who can love whom.” And Daniels hopes that the evening performanc­es serve as a fittingly enchanting complement to “The Playhouse’s” daytime attraction­s as the Folger stages its first production since “The Merry Wives of Windsor” played at its Elizabetha­n Theatre in early 2020.

“If there’s something we need, right now, it’s to hope, right?” Daniels says. “If we can offer that space, the ability to both depart and spirituall­y rebuild as we’re doing it, that’s what we can do with this show. And I have seen that idea come together in really beautiful ways.”

“That was always the plan: How can we keep people engaged?” she said.

Start with the twice-daily “Insider’s Tour.” While the Playhouse itself is billed as the star, participan­ts are put front and center right from the start. Groups are led into “A Midsummer Forest,” an installati­on filled with oversize illustrati­ons from “A Knavish Lad,” a pop-up book based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” There, surrounded by imagery from the play, with colorful translucen­t leaves overhead, docents ask volunteers to read and discuss lines from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” ( You might have forgotten that, in the play’s first scene, Hermia is told that if she doesn’t marry her father’s preferred suitor, she faces a stark choice between a nunnery and death.)

After wandering through a tunnel, visitors enter the Playhouse. There are interestin­g facts to be learned about its constructi­on — the set covers the museum’s central fountain, for instance, and after the final performanc­es here, it is heading to the University of South Carolina, where it will go on tour — but let’s be honest: Everyone wants to get onstage and see what it feels like in front of all those (admittedly empty) seats. Guides encourage those on the tour to pair up and play “Shakespear­e in a Can,” a game that involves drawing random lines from Shakespear­e plays and performing them together, or improvisin­g a short scene.

The 45-minute tour winds up “Backstage.” Visitors can dive into racks of costumes, including brocade jackets and floppy hats to try on, or just marvel at costumes worn in previous Folger production­s; a ruffled, pearl-covered dress worn in “Elizabeth the Queen” is captivatin­g, until you read that it weighs 20 pounds.

Some aspects of the tour might go over the littlest visitors’ heads, but there’s still plenty for them to do. Right next to the Playhouse’s entrance is a crafting area where children can create lion masks and fairy wands. There’s also a daily story time and face painting on Saturdays and Sundays. A scavenger hunt seeks out “Midsummer” characters placed in exhibits throughout the building. The museum’s hands-on “City by Design” exhibit, which introduces the idea of urban planning to grade-school visitors, has been adapted with an Elizabetha­n theme: Kids build model castles, churches and pubs out of cardboard boxes and constructi­on paper and place them on a floor-sized map of Shakespear­e’s London, or color and tape together a version of Shakespear­e’s Globe Theatre.

Throughout the run, the calendar is full of special events: Lunchtime poetry readings (July 28), four Thursday evening concerts on the museum’s west lawn (July 28-Aug. 18), a weekend of “Hip-hop Shakespear­e” workshops (Aug. 5-7), and a “Brews and Banter” pre-show happy hour with members of the “Midsummer” cast (Aug. 12).

The hope, says the Building Museum’s Frankel, is that no matter their age, people will make a day out of “The Playhouse”: Come in at lunch for a poetry reading or to take a tour. Make crafts with the kids, then get a bite to eat in the neighborho­od. After dinner, come back for live music or a workshop, then see “Midsummer.” It’s a day that sounds rather like a dream.

“That was always the plan: How can we keep people engaged?”

Cathy Frankel, National Building Museum vice president for exhibition­s and collection­s

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 ?? ?? TOP: The cast of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” performed by the Folger Theatre on a Agbabiaka as Oberon, Jacob Ming-trent as Bottom and Sabrina Lynne Sawyer as a fai Floyd, Sawyer and Brit Herring watch Ming-trent playing the bumbling character Bot
TOP: The cast of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” performed by the Folger Theatre on a Agbabiaka as Oberon, Jacob Ming-trent as Bottom and Sabrina Lynne Sawyer as a fai Floyd, Sawyer and Brit Herring watch Ming-trent playing the bumbling character Bot
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 ?? ?? Nubia M. Monks as Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Nubia M. Monks as Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
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 ?? Photos By BRITTANY Diliberto ?? a specially constructe­d stage at the National Building Museum. ABOVE LEFT: From left, Shinji Elspeth Oh as a fairy, Rotimi ry. ABOVE CENTER: Company members perform a celebrator­y dance in the play. ABOVE RIGHT: From left, Kathryn Zoerb, John ttom. “We have this very large, grand space, which then allows us to be huge when we want to be huge,” Ming-trent says.
Photos By BRITTANY Diliberto a specially constructe­d stage at the National Building Museum. ABOVE LEFT: From left, Shinji Elspeth Oh as a fairy, Rotimi ry. ABOVE CENTER: Company members perform a celebrator­y dance in the play. ABOVE RIGHT: From left, Kathryn Zoerb, John ttom. “We have this very large, grand space, which then allows us to be huge when we want to be huge,” Ming-trent says.
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 ?? Photos By TOM Brenner For The WASHINGTON POST ?? TOP: Visitors examine the queen’s dress used in the Folger Theatre’s 2003 play “Elizabeth the Queen.” MIDDLE: Catalina Garcia, center, dresses up at “The Playhouse,” where crowns and wands are part of the experience. ABOVE: Catalina gets her face painted at the National Building Museum installati­on.
Photos By TOM Brenner For The WASHINGTON POST TOP: Visitors examine the queen’s dress used in the Folger Theatre’s 2003 play “Elizabeth the Queen.” MIDDLE: Catalina Garcia, center, dresses up at “The Playhouse,” where crowns and wands are part of the experience. ABOVE: Catalina gets her face painted at the National Building Museum installati­on.

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