For an American, Dr. Thomas W. Evans – noted 19th-century dentist/diplomat – spent a surprising amount of time interacting with royalty. Besides performing dental surgery on various European heads of state, Evans along with his wife Ann Doyle aided in smuggling the last French empress out of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, and once assisted with an emergency tracheotomy on Frederick III, Emperor of Germany. As a result, there is a certain roundabout logic that 120 years after their deaths, the Evanses’ obelisk in Philadelphia’s Woodlands cemetery would make an excellent setting for the reenactment of another’s adventures in the service of royalty: I, Peaseblossom, presented by the Curio Theatre as part of the 2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
Tim Crouch’s retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a one-man (give or take a few) show follows fairy Peaseblossom, who serves Queen Titania and speaks a grand total of five lines in Shakespeare’s play. Picking up the very early morning after the events of the play, Peaseblossom is in the midst of following Titania’s last commandment and blessing the house of Theseus, the marriages of the lovers, and the burritos of the audience members when he starts recounting the events of the past few days. Aided by some symbolic dreams (and some audience participation), Peaseblossom meditates on the play’s themes in his own idiosyncratic way.
Brian McCann as Peaseblossom provides an interesting take on Shakespeare’s fairies, giving a performance that goes for deliberate instead of flighty. The wisecracks and abrupt subject changes arrive in the steady delivery of a stand-up comedian, a dynamic further reflected in McCann’s interactions with the audience: frequently acknowledged and incorporated for comic effect, but still held at something of an arm’s length. However, this otherwise effective persona is occasionally at odds with the play’s text: it is somewhat jarring to hear Peter Pan-ish sentiments like “This is why I never want to grow up!” from a character who otherwise seems perfectly happy as a cynical old fart. Meanwhile, Paul Kuhn also features as the humorously laconic Paul, Peaseblossom’s occasional emcee and, most importantly, his musical backup. Several of the show’s funniest moments arrive accompanied by the theme from The A-Team, various levels of the Super Mario Bros.. soundtrack, or the saxophone riff of “Careless Whispers”.
Aetna Gallagher’s costumes add an interesting layer to the production, contrasting the fantastic nature of the fairies with rather workmanlike attire. Peaseblossom sports wild pink hair, glitter eyeshadow, and floppy butterfly wings while wearing rubber boots with waterproof overalls and matching yellow rain slicker, an outfit both practical (given the recent weather of both fictional Athens and actual Philadelphia) and vaguely reminiscent of a circus clown. Paul, meanwhile, wears a utilitarian set of khaki coveralls with his aqua hair, pointed ears, and dainty pink wings. The end result suggests the uniforms of a sort-of fairy proletariat, raising interesting implications about the social distinctions and relationships between Midsummer’s fairy royalty and our working-class heroes.
Director Dan Hodge strikes a good balance between McCann’s improvisatory material, Kuhn’s endless supply of musical gags, and the play’s philosophical-comical musings, providing solid support for McCann as he carries the burden of recounting and enacting nearly all the action himself. Sparing but memorable props, disguised as detritus from the source play’s festivities, include an array of party hats and Barbie dolls standing in for the rude mechanicals; the set, meanwhile, consists only of a table/altar covered in white linen and red table runner before the raised platform and towering obelisk of the late Dr. and Mrs. Evans. The middle of a graveyard is not the most obvious place for a Shakespeare in the Park production, but Hodge and the production team use it to good effect. Woodlands’ woodlands and lush turf provide a haven of tranquility in the midst of West Philadelphia, gently enhanced by a few strings of lights and the paper lanterns leading the living to the cemetery’s exit; at the very least, the spreading lawn before the obelisk and its prominent position by the access road enable the crowd to avoid sitting on top of either other members of the audience or the local residents. Meanwhile, as the play progresses, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby gains an unexpected realism, set as it is at “Ninny’s” Tomb, and the section detailing Peaseblossom’s Last Dream – Death – takes on a somber edge.
The result is a production that draws the audience into its workings, a metatheatrical adaptation fit for both scholars and children. The Curio Theatre’s I, Peaseblossom demonstrates the creativity and transformative power of the Philly Fringe, providing an experience for all Philadelphians – past and present.