Between homeless and hope: A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to Williams Park

Published October 25 2018
Updated October 27 2018

ST. PETERSBURG ó The fairy king stood alone on stage, talking about revenge on his wife.

The fine drops that had threatened to turn into rain Tuesday had left; a cool breeze had taken their place. Cast members in Shakespeareís
A Midsummer Nightís Dream, in their first dress rehearsal in Williams Park, stashed themselves away in clusters.

As Oberon, Matthew Frankel anchored himself and spoke clearly about the love potion he had just received from the mischievous Puck.

"Iíll watch Titania when she is asleep, and drop the liquor of it in her eyes," he said. In the middle of his lines, chimes from the lit bell tower of First United Methodist Church burst into a melody.

Frankel raised his voice a notch. The bells finished, then struck eight as ambient noise from cars and buses floated in from four sides.

The [email protected] is staging its biggest production ever in Williams Park, in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg. Artistic director Bob Devin Jones hopes itís the first in a tradition, recalling an earlier time.

"The stage was surrounded by the green benches," he said. "It was free and open to the community."

The show is free, thanks to funding from the city of St. Petersburg, the [email protected] and private donors. The St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival, which did Julius Caesar in the park last year, is co-producing.

Random sounds and changing traffic lights feel like found art, accidental contributions to the whole. Hovering over this block remains a nagging question about the people who live there at least part of the day. Once prime real estate, Williams Park in recent decades has become a home for the homeless, a symbol of hopelessness. This is the messy back bedroom, the stack of unpaid bills, the sore that wonít heal. Its very beauty tears at the heart. Thatís what makes this production important.

In a cold snap a year ago, people associated with the Shakespeare Festivalís Julius Caesar in Williams Park gave away blankets. Festival founder Veronica Matthews still hands out a lot of bottled water but canít shake the fundamental difference between herself and the people in the park ó a permanent address.

"I feel a little torn about the area because I feel we are in the space that belongs to these people who are homeless," said Matthews, 35, Midsummerís assistant director. Their reaction has come as a pleasant surprise.

"Theyíre very happy to have us there," Matthews said. "They are interested in the fact that we do Shakespeare. Some of them have talked about the plays that they like. A lot of them know Midsummer, which is exciting."

Kylin Brady, who plays Puck, graduated from the Canterbury School before going to New York, where she performed in the ensemble and as understudy to the lead in Broadwayís The Lion King. This stage means just as much, if for different reasons.

"I hope this is the page that turns over this thought about what Williams Park was for a few years, or many years, into something beautiful and amazing and revitalizing," said Brady, 38.

The cast of 19 varies significantly in stage experience, ranging from a little to apprentice to Broadway. The show adds some timely flourishes, including five dancers, a ukulele played by Chris Necker as Bottom (the one who gets turned into a donkey), a fairy ensemble in rainbow wigs, and the beat-box skills of Reuben Pressman, who plays Starveling.

They frolicked and bounced, ran down ramps and danced, informal as the bring-your-own-blanket seating. Only a few people sat on benches. Anyone sleeping risks being shooed away or going to a shelter.

On a bench off to the side, Simon Manus sat with legs crossed. He had been in front of American Stage but saw the lights and commotion.

Manus, 33, said he has been mostly homeless for 15 years. He had taken a Shakespeare course at the University of Maryland, he said, and thought the acting in this show was "terrific," even though he hadnít been able to make out all of the dialogue.

"Iíve got a lot on my mind right now," he said.

After a legal challenge, the city this year reinstated the ability of police to issue trespass warnings on city-owned property. Manus said he has learned to sleep sitting up for a few hours at a time. He combed through a small book in which he records events, citing the time that morning when he gave up his life to God. He believes that decision began a chain of actions that had led him to this moment, to these dancing fairies and enchanted woods. Itís all Godís will, he said, and read a verse from a psalm in his book.

"To do thy will is my delight."

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.