If this were a normal week, Folger Theatre would be opening a new show in its beloved building at 201 Capitol Street SE, where the Folger has produced theater, poetry, and music, held literary readings, and housed precious documents since 1932.
But this is anything but a normal week. Folger Theatre has opened its new production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream within the massive atrium of the National Building Museum, since the Folger’s Capitol Street address is undergoing a multiyear architectural overhaul, to update everything from its storage to its air-conditioning.
Inside the National Building Museum, Folger’s architects and designers have built a super stage, called The Playhouse, so that Folger’s actors have a perfect showcase to explore love, marriage, improbability, humor, and romance, just as Shakespeare wanted them to in Midsummer.
The “look” of the show is often what people first pay attention to in any production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since the play contains not only fairies but the king and queen of fairies, productions of the play are often overwhelmed with sprites and elves.
For this Midsummer Night’s Dream, costume designer Olivera Gajic wanted to try something new, particularly for Puck, often believed by many to be the central character in Midsummer. Puck gets the action of Midsummer started. And Puck ends the madness of Midsummer before any real damage to the rational world is done.
For Puck and his attendant fairies, Olivera tried to make them represent two worlds. “On one hand, I made them look like fairies,” she says. “On the other, they should remind you of kids you might see in Washington, DC — maybe on the way to a rave. So the design is not too specific.
“These characters are supposed to appear as though they are bridging the gap between two worlds, the world of fairies and the world of humans. Puck has a music box with him, so he is our DJ, in a sense. I also chose sparkles and LED lights for Puck. I wanted him to transcend easily from one world to another.”
A lot has been made of the fact that the Puck in this production is played by a female, Danaya Esperanza. But it should be remembered that Ellen Terry played Puck in 1856. And designing a costume for a female Puck is old news to Olivera.
“This is my fourth Puck who is a girl!” she says, via phone from her home in Washington, DC. “Though I would prefer to say that this Puck has a ‘non-binary’ kind of look, rather than that she is ‘female.’ I try to not do explicit gender drawings when I’m working on a character.”
Like Olivera, Danaya is employing the concept of duality in her role. “I try to do one thing at a time, but several things in quick succession,” says Danaya in a telephone interview. “So it may seem that I am doing more than one thing at a time. For me, Puck is a transformer. My Puck can be anything that he/they wants to be at any given moment in time.
“In the script, Puck talks about transforming. The other fairies don’t talk about that. The other fairies are not hobgoblins, they are just fairies. We know that Oberon and Titania can travel and that they have human lovers, but they don’t transform. But Puck can transform into anything — a stool, or whatever. For me, that was my way into the character and the play: the incredible power of transformation.”
Olivera and Danaya have both come a long way to appear in this special Midsummer Night’s Dream. Olivera grew up in a small town in Serbia. “It was just 40,000 people,” says Olivera. “When I was young, I did a lot of fashion design. By the time I wanted to attend university, I decided to go to the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade. It’s like Juilliard. It has a five-year program for those who want to specialize in the arts. That was so different from fashion design.
“Working with others in the theater program gave me a sense of purpose. It was a magical moment in my life. Then I continued on to the University of Connecticut to get my Master of Fine Arts degree. Now it’s work that opens all doors for me. I have been employed by some directors for over a decade now. I think people hire me when they want spectacle. I can design anything, but some directors keep coming back because they are looking for something unusual.”
Olivera now works all over the world. “I have designed at the Folger before, “ she says, “and at the Juilliard Drama and Opera Divisions. I’ve designed at the Salzburg Festival in Austria and at A.R.T. I’ve designed for the Trinity Repertory and Long Wharf, and California Shakespeare Theater. It’s so exciting now for me to be working here, trying to accommodate my designs to this space and make them as monumental and as grand as the National Building Museum is.”
For her part, Danaya was ready to become an actress when she was very young. Born in Cuba, she recalls walking with her mother past a musical competition when she was only three. The people running the show were asking for kids five years and older to come up to the stage.
“My mother looked up to see that I was on the stage,” says Danaya. “The contestants were supposed to sing light-hearted children’s songs, but I sang a sad one about a woman losing the love of her life. I won that competition!
“After that, I always wanted to be a performer. I won a Fulbright to a college prep boarding school in Indiana and that’s where I started doing plays. Later in life, I went to Juilliard. Now I work all over the country, from Off-Broadway to regional theater, from Geva to the McCarter Theatre, the Goodman Theatre, and the Shakespeare Theater. On television, I was in The Blacklist and Elementary.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written in the winter between 1595 and 1596. As Harold Bloom says in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human: “Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging: women and men are represented as aging and dying, but not as changing because their relationship to themselves, rather than to the gods or God, has changed. In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves.”
That this can be true 426 years after A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written is astonishing. The Folger Theatre deserves great credit for creating this refreshed Midsummer and for offering it to the public with a bold new approach.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays from July 12 to August 28, 2022, presented by Folger Theatre performing at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Performance times are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8 pm; Wednesdays at 4 pm and 8 pm; Saturdays at 4:30 pm and 8 pm; Sundays at 7:00 pm. For tickets ($20–$85), call or email the Folger Box Office (202-544-7077, noon to 5 pm Monday through Friday; firstname.lastname@example.org), go to the National Building Museum Visitor’s Center (Thursday through Monday from 11 am to 4 pm); or purchase online.
COVID Safety: Folger Theatre’s performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will require audience members to provide proof of vaccination with either an original vaccination card or a clear photo, and wear a well-fitting mask that covers both the nose and mouth at all times inside the theater. Folger Theatre’s complete COVID-19 Safety Protocols are here.
Folger Theatre to present ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the National Building Museum (May 26, 2022, news story, includes cast and creative credits)
For Folger’s Karen Ann Daniels, the Bard’s big O stands for opportunity (interview by Ramona Harper)
The Insider’s Tour: The Building, The Forest, The Playhouse
Led by Folger docents and staff beginning July 15, 2022, this 45-minute interactive experience will give visitors a chance at a more intimate and inside view of the National Building Museum and the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Playhouse. Enter the enchantment of artist Joanna Robson’s Midsummer installation! Jump on stage and have fun with some of Shakespeare’s juiciest lines. Explore a backstage experience that includes fun activities for all ages. The Insider’s Tours begin daily at 1:00 pm and 2:00 pm. Free with museum admission.