Pace University’s School of Performing Arts fall mainstage season will kick off on November 20 with a new Madonna-inspired adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Fourteen Madonna classics will be woven through the original spoken text of Shakespeare. The show is a collaboration between the acting and dance program at Pace.
The production, “Welcome to the Wood, A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is directed by Grant Kretchik, the head of the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) Acting Program at the Pace School of Performing Arts, and choreographed by Jess Hendricks, featuring Pace’s BFA’s Commercial Dance dancers. The creative team is comprised entirely of Pace University students, including set designer Brett Martinez, costume designer Arin Goldsmith, lighting designer Elijah Sullivan, sound designer Julia Riley, and props master Colleen O’Brien. The production is stage managed by student Lindsay Jones and company managed by student Emily Huber.
“It is as elegant as it is erotic, as sophisticated as it is sensual, and as timeless as it is tempting,” says director Kretchik.
I was invited to peek in during their final dress rehearsal on Tuesday night and was able to stay long enough to witness the first act. Scurrying down Spruce Street to the Schimmel Center of Pace University in downtown Manhattan, which houses the theatre in which the show is performed, I had no idea what to expect from this production. Before the show, campy elevator music style Madonna songs filled the auditorium and definitely set the tone for the self-aware delight, beauty, and bawdiness about to take place. It was actually quite endearing to see the younger college student crowd bopping and dancing to the songs. Being a huge Madonna fan, my feelings were obviously bias about the fantastic idea for the show, but that also would lean me to being a harsher critic than most. The show began with an elegant Shakespearian vibe with a slight juxtaposition of modern technology, almost easing you into the coming fanfare. Soon, classic Madonna songs from every era of her career were wonderfully and delightfully sewn into the fabric of the 400-year-old play as if they were meant to be all along. Even the floor design had similarities to the tiles in the background of promotional photos for her current “Madame X” Tour. The choreography was certainly fresh and frisky with occasional nods to some of Madonna’s wildest live performances and subtle references to some of her most iconic imagery. I’m actually not even sure some were intentional, but as a deeper kind of fan, I noticed them for sure.
Fan cracks and fishnet tights aplenty, the show transgresses quickly into a hedonistic night club scenario where the would-be lovers of the story going to be free from societal corsets and restraints. The classic character of Puck is reimagined as a saucy, vixen troublemaker. Her interaction with her troupe of heathens brought some Vegas-style “Showgirls” sophistication and sexuality. The costuming throughout the show was fantastic with built-in tearaways and clever, fetish inspired styling. We highly recommend you take the time to experience “Welcome to the Wood -A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. http://schimmelcenter.org/event/midsummer
Before the show, I had just enough time to ask director Grant Kretchik a few questions about the show and the creative process in turning this Shakespeare classic into a modern day boundary-pushing experience featuring the music of the queen of button pushing: Madonna.
CHAUNCEY: What made you decide to use Madonna songs to reinvent the story of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”?
GRANT KRETCHIK: It started as imagining THE WOODS (where the lovers escape to find their love) as a night club as a sophisticated labyrinth and then I wondered what this underground night club would feel like. I immediately landed on Vogue but specifically inspired by the MTV Awards from 1990! So that was a fine enough feeling- but now what? ? What kind of music is in this club, what’s the energy, the tone? I thought well maybe Vogue opens or closes the show. Again, “now what?” So I started digging deeper, played with a few different songs from the ’80s and ’90s from other artists but of course, Madonna kept coming up and I landed on Open Your Heart- a light bulb went off! I was like, “this is what Helena is feeling” but it’s not exactly what’s in the story. I hit on a few more Madonna songs. Mind you I did not set out to create this adaptation it’s only where I landed. As I continued to listen I kept rediscovering the power of sexual femininity that Madonna awoke in the ’80s and throughout her career. Simultaneously, I became conscious of the times we are in now. It drove me back to the text. I started realizing things about the script that I didn’t like such as a duty to society, oppressed female voices. I mean, come on Hermia’s father is willing to offer her to death if she doesn’t marry the man he picked for her. Helena is running around offering to be Demetrius’ dog if he will love her- absolutely awful and pathetic. I went back to Open Your Heart and was like, “what if I put this song in as a way for Helena to stand up to him and realize the power she has as a woman and as a sexual being? I still only thought it might be atomospheric in someway. Not long after I hit on the part in the text that Hermia and Lysander exchange “love tokens” I always thought of this as referring to intimate exchanges between them and then the 3rd light bulb came. What if it’s not about intimacy but rather he brings her gifts to woo her, such as diamond rings and 18k gold- mind was blown, Material Girl and Express Yourself. This crystallized everything for me and it was also the first moment I thought of the play as an adaptation where the songs could be driven by the characters and particularly the female ones. Now I was in deep and it had to be Madonna so I thew myself into her catalog. That is when the next part made sense to me. The king and the queen in the court are oppressed in their own way, ya know, ‘heavy is the head that wears the crown’ kinda thing? Hippolyta and Theseus too have to secretly escape to the club, which by this time I was calling “THE WOOD” and in this club, they were able to be free and role play as Titania and Oberon. Titania would teach the young female lovers how to express themselves and embrace their power. Now I was realizing I might be on to something interesting or at least interesting to me. Rounding out the process was inserting additional songs that were character driven but also would set tone such as; When Titania falls in love with the ass she could be made to feel Like a Virgin when she’s under the spell; when Puck (who becomes the DJ in the club) has to reverse the spell on the loves they would need to justify their love before coming out of THE WOOD changed. It went on and on. I was in a Madonna K hole- not that I’ve ever done K. Suddenly in the span between January to April, I had “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a Madonna dance party or so I hoped.
CHAUNCEY: How big of a Madonna fan are you?
GRANT: Oh this is not an easy answer. I love Madonna and always have but I never thought of myself as a “fan”. It’s deeper and at the same time simpler than that. In college, I took a course in anthropology and popular culture and the academic textbook had an entire chapter dedicated to Madonna. I always knew I loved the music- it was all around me growing up, she was controversial, sexy, could put out fun dance music. Now having worked on this I have become more aware of her as a storyteller in her lyrics. There are all these gems of thought provoking ideas that can go by as a blip because the music is so good. But it was in that class that I understood the influence this woman had on the world and on women as sexual creatures and a feminist- that was in 1999 and she has not stopped. I grew up with all women and it wasn’t easy for them- I had a new level of respect for Madonna. I am an admitted fan but with an artist who has the stamina and staying power like Madonna, that she is a part of the cultural narrative. It becomes a part of your story. When you grow up with artists you know them intimately because their music gets you through shit and it helps you to know yourself. Isn’t that what art can do, help you to know yourself? Madonna for me is my coming of age story. She’s been in all the moments of my life and I didn’t know it because she was in the background like a quiet and supportive friend.
I hope that my students from a newer generation are discovering her and her influence through this process. We are having a blast but I hope they are aware of how much Madonna and so many other female artists have moved the needle forward so they can express who they are today- and that story will continue to evolve but we must recognize and pay respect to those who came before.
The show runs Wednesday, November 20th through Sunday, November 24th with two matinees at The Schimmel Center of Pace University at 3 Spruce Street in lower Manhattan. For tickets please click here