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.
This week, Folger’s staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at last begins 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 infrastructure 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, 2½-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.”
If you go
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
National Building Museum, 401 F St NW. 202-544-7077. folger.edu.
Dates: Through Aug. 28.
“The Playhouse” events: “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote in a different pastoral comedy. The theater-themed activities taking place around the National Building Museum continue even when the actors aren’t performing. Programs include behind-the-scenes tours of the Playhouse stage and a chance to deliver lines onstage; lunchtime poetry readings; a Hip-Hop Shakespeare Workshop from Aug. 5-7; and a “Brews & Banter” pre-show happy hour with cast members on Aug. 12. Daily activities for children include crafting masks and wands, story time, and a scavenger hunt through the museum. Face painting is offered on Saturdays and Sundays. Most activities are free with museum admission.