More Than a ‘Dream’ on the Lower East Side

Performers in "Sueño: A Latino Take on Shakespeare’s 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream'" approach the audience before the show. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell for Voices of NY)

Performers in “Sueño: A Latino Take on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream'” approach the audience before the show. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell for Voices of NY)

Right before the start of “Sueño: A Latino Take on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream'”, performed outdoors in the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center’s parking lot on the Lower East Side, actors costumed as fairies approach the audience, riding bicycles and carrying giant balloons to set the festive tone for the show.

At one recent performance, a dog with a family in the audience reacted enthusiastically to the actors, who welcomed him on stage like he was part of the cast. Moments later, as the sun was setting and a 7-piece band played Brazilian rhythms, the rest of the actors came on, singing a samba tune.

As it turns out, the song was as unscripted as the dog.

“That was the first night we did that,” Nelson Landrieu, one of the two lead narrators, said a few days after that performance. “It was my idea. [In the first shows] we would only come out dancing to the Brazilian music, so we said: ‘Let’s do something [else],’ and I went: [singing] ‘Quero sambar com você…’ to, say, get into the groove.”

Nelson Landrieu, one of the two lead narrators in the play. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell for Voices of NY)

Nelson Landrieu, one of the two lead narrators in the play. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell for Voices of NY)

Not much else is left to improvisation in this spectacular show combining puppetry, live music and modern dance. The play will be performed alternately in Spanish and English through Sunday, June 28, free of charge. It’s the first Shakespeare play presented by the Society of the Educational Arts, Inc. (Teatro SEA), which turns 30 this year.

“Part of our mission is to revisit the classics,” said Teatro SEA’s CEO Manuel Morán, the show’s artistic director. “I had already done [Miguel de] Cervantes and [Federico García] Lorca, which is more contemporary, and thought: ‘Since I love Shakespeare so much, why don’t we do it and add it to the company’s repertoire.'”

After decades producing theater for children – Teatro SEA’s Los Kabayitos Puppet & Children’s Theater is the city’s only Latino theater of its kind – the Bard’s carnival-like comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” seemed like a right fit.

“It was perfect for a family audience, not only because it’s a comedy of errors but also because it has goblins and fairies and happens in the forest, and I wanted to put animals in it,” said Morán. “I also wanted to highlight Afro-Caribbean culture, which is very present in our lives but is seldom represented in the arts here. So I thought of this white universe in which all of the characters are Black and mulatto.”

The “Sueño” adaptation rearranges the play’s narrative and adds original scenes. “There are dreams that Shakespeare maybe mentions in one line, like Hermia’s nightmare with a snake, and I thought: ‘Why don’t we stage the nightmare with puppets and modern dance.'” Morán added that this is also a way to make the five-century-old text more accessible to a young audience.

To help him bring his vision to life, the Puerto Rican director relied on Cuban playwright Norge Espinosa, who first reimagined Shakespeare’s play in a previous version written for Teatro de las Estaciones, Cuba’s main puppet theater.

“Taking my Havana version as a starting point, we thoroughly readjusted it to meet SEA’s requirements to create this Caribbean dream,” explained Espinosa via email from Cuba. His version takes place in a mythical Caribbean instead of ancient Athens where Shakespeare had set the play. Espinosa explained that it is a sort of tribute to 20th century Latin American artists who dared to match the creative freedom found in European classics.

“What Shakespeare says is always universal because he described human passions with a poetic intensity that allows his texts to transcend decades and prejudices,” said the playwright, who is also a prominent LGBT activist.

The “Sueño” team includes a dozen performers from several Latin American countries, Spain and the U.S., led by Colombian choreographer Daniel Fetecua, member of Limón Dance Company. Puerto Rican artist José López Alemán created the multi-sized puppets, including a gigantic naked Titania, Queen of the Fairies, who steals the show. Finally, two composers, Manuel Calzada from Puerto Rico and Alejandro Zuleta from Colombia, wrote the score.

The new production affirms the value of the Clemente Soto Vélez (CSV) as a cultural and community center. The towering Lower East Side neo-Gothic building already boasts four theaters, two art galleries and several art studios. Now, “Sueño” inaugurates a new performance space: its parking lot, named The Plaza @ The Clemente. The center is on Suffolk Street in Lower Manhattan, in an area rapidly drawing crowds to trendy new restaurants, bars and clubs.

“For many years, we have fought to revitalize our institution, to keep a Hispanic cultural center alive, because many of our institutions are disappearing,” explained Morán, who is also the CSV’s chairperson. “I thought: ‘How can we reclaim spaces for cultural activities?’ This way. That’s why we call it a plaza. We said: ‘Let’s plant a flag here to protect it for the community.’ It isn’t that we are in immediate danger [of disappearing] but in this area and with gentrification, there’s always a risk.”

A scene from "Sueño: A Latino Take on Shakespeare’s 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream.'"(Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell for Voices of NY)

A scene from “Sueño: A Latino Take on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.'” (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell for Voices of NY)

Morán said that the center has received funding to repave the parking lot later this year. The space will continue to be used for events throughout the summer, including performances by theater company Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, a group that has staged Shakespeare’s plays outdoors since 1995. Next summer, the CSV plans to stage a zarzuela (a Spanish type of opera) and an outdoor cinema series.

The plan seeks to strengthen the CSV’s revival after years of struggle. The former public school – built in 1898 – was abandoned in the mid-1970s. After bilingual education program Solidaridad Humana took charge of the building in the 1980s, it became a cultural center and was named after the late Puerto Rican poet and activist Clemente Soto Vélez in 1993.

Landrieu, one of the founders, established his company Teatro LATEA in the decaying building in 1985. “Back then, the neighborhood was really bad. Because it is such a big building, you had to watch who was coming in. We would see people shooting drugs on the stairs,” remembers the Uruguayan actor.

In the late ’90s, the CSV started hosting other Hispanic theater companies, supporting itself by renting out artist studios. For a while, the center was plagued by financial difficulties and internal divisions over leadership. A bitter legal feud was resolved a few years ago, and the restoration of the building’s exterior – thanks to city funding – has given the CSV a new glow.

“Not even we knew what the building really looked like because when we arrived, there was already scaffolding [around it],” said Landrieu. “I remember a couple of years ago, when I parked my car and walked down the street and saw it for the first time. It was very moving. I said: ‘We have achieved something. There is a legacy.'”

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