To Sleep, to Dream; Aye, There's the Fun
By Tim Crouch
Park Avenue Armory New York, N.Y.
Sunday, November 3, 2013, back row center of temporary seating
When you enter the makeshift theater that has taken over the Board of Officers Room in New York's Park Avenue Armory, you will soon be accosted by a crazy guy wearing a dark blue rain slicker, khaki shorts, and psychedelic multicolor galoshes. What looks like silver ribbon hangs off the base of his hood, and he is carrying a sock-like plush bear wearing pink pants. He steps around the room speaking a nonstop monologue, commenting on the children in tiny seats up front and the parents in adult seats around the back, and if you are on your cell phone texting or looking at photos, he is certain to say something belittling. At the front of the room is a table with place cards bearing the names of the eight lovers in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and graffiti covers the floor. Over in one corner is a guy in a yellow rain slicker sitting at a soundboard, and in the corner opposite him is a chalkboard, and on it is written "Peaseblossom Night."
Tim Crouch as Peaseblossom in his one-fairy play I, Peaseblossom.. Photo courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.
Of course it's baffling—except for the man's behavior, because if you know who it is you are coming to see, you know that man is Tim Crouch already in character interacting directly with the audience. Earlier this year, we saw his I, Malvolio at the New Victory Theater, so when given the opportunity to see another of his one-person shows, I, Peaseblossom (which he calls a one-fairy show), in a private performance at the Park Avenue Armory on a weekend we were already in New York, we unhesitatingly fit it into our already-busy schedule.
Crouch builds his scripts on minor characters in Shakespeare's plays and tells the story from that character's perspective. In addition to I, Peaseblossom and I, Malvolio, he has written I, Calaban, I, Banquo, and I, Cinna. These alternate-perspective approaches to Shakespeare's plays are generally meant for children. I, Peaseblossom is suited for children 6–12 and their parents. He's just silly to children the way he jumps on the table and falls fast asleep, the way he includes the children in telling the story, the way he pulls a tab and the ribbons hanging off the back of his slicker open up into fairy wings, the way he tells the story with sound effects and playground talk using words like "love" and "naked" (but not in the same sentence). Meanwhile, he's cleverly comedic to the parents, the way he slyly imparts valuable lessons to the children, the way he adjusts to the children's responses, the way he pulls a tab and the ribbons hanging off the back of his slicker open up into fairy wings, the way he tells Shakespeare's story we know so well with such a unique perspective while dropping words like "leitmotif" (telling the kids, "You'll learn that some day"), and making subtle theatrical references.
His goal is to introduce children to Shakespeare and, along the way, provide some life lessons for his audience, or at least let them see themselves in his interpretation of Shakespeare. With I, Peaseblossom, for example, the fairy starts off explaining the triple wedding that has just occurred and whispers how the lords as well as the Fairy King and Fairy Queen are now "coupling." He knows the children in the front will have a snickering regard for couples falling in love while the adults in the back pick up on his inference that the three just-married Athenian couples are soon to be bickering like Oberon and Titania. It is the night after the wedding, and a tired Peaseblossom falls asleep; and when he does, Tim the stage manager—the guy in the yellow slicker—walks over to the chalkboard and writes a single word representing what Peaseblossom is dreaming. The fairy lives out the dream for us, then goes back to a deep sleep until the next dream. There are six in all: "bee," "naked," "play," "flower,""scratchy," and "death."
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Peaseblossom speaks four lines with a total of five words: "Ready," "Hail, mortal!" "Peaseblossom," and, one more time, "Ready." Out of this, Crouch builds a character who is overwhelmed by the size of things around him and becomes baffled at the behavior of his Fairy Queen when she is juiced by Oberon. "What fools these mortals be," he says, referring to the Athenian lovers brawling in the woods. "But we're just as bad, really." Through his own dreams, Peaseblossom recounts the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but we get his perspective: how he can't move when Oberon comes to juice Titania's eyes as she sleeps, how Athenian workmen show up in the woods and rehearse a tragic play for a happy occasion, how he ends up scratching an ass's head. And why is he scratching an ass's head? Because his mistress is madly in love with the workman with an ass's head. "It's amazing what you will do when you are in love with an ass," Peaseblossom says; "Isn't that right, ladies?"
He and Tim are wearing rain slickers because it has been raining incessantly for days and days. The teddy bear with the pink shorts represents the changeling Indian boy. And the place cards he assigns to various children in the audience, who will then speak those characters' lines from cards Peaseblossom shows them. Crouch also works Shakespeare's verse into his script. At one point Peaseblossom is describing the events going on in the woods when he suddenly starts talking about the bank where the wild thyme blows. He assures the children this is a natural bank, not a money-lending institution, but he finishes out Oberon's famous speech with a steady poetic delivery that makes novice and experienced Shakespeare-lover alike fully appreciate The Bard's unparalleled skills with dramatic verse.
The play, it seems, is Peaseblossom's dream. Or, maybe, he is dreaming of the real-life events that occurred in the play that now haunt his sleep. It is in the sharing of Peaseblossom's dreams that Crouch connects with children for whom dreams are as important as and more frightening than the experiences of their waking hours, and sometimes more real, too. Through this leitmotif Crouch positions Shakespeare's play as, in and of itself, a dream. Puck says as much in his epilogue.
As clever as his scripts are, and as well as he connects with children, the most rewarding payoff in a Crouch production is his fourth-wall crashing capabilities and courage to walk theater's improvisational edge. His characters go places many an actor wouldn't dare go. His Malvolio, for example, enlisted the assistance of children in committing suicide. His Peaseblossom gets some of the magic flower's juice in his eyes, and at first he's certain it won't affect him because he's a fairy; but looking out over the children's heads he lights upon a woman among the parents. Cathy is her name, he learns, and Peaseblossom starts devoutly doting on Cathy, and he certainly seems to have genuinely fallen for her to a point that Cathy starts looking nervous, wondering how far this script will go.
We certainly have fallen for this talented writer and performer and his singular takes on Shakespeare. Add a Crouch play to your Shakespeare bucket list; it's worth the effort.
November 8, 2013