VA Pilot Interviews Patrick Mullins about Midsummer Fantasy Festival

The Midsummer Fantasy Festival in Norfolk brings together Shakespeare, big puppets and Beyoncé

By Joy Vann, Correspondent
July 28, 2016

A celebration of William Shakespeare and Norfolk’s unique connection to the water will take place this weekend when Festevents presents the Midsummer Fantasy Festival at Town Point Park.

The three-night event, “Sailors, Sonnets and Sprites,” features more than 40 performers who will string together some of the Bard’s most beloved sonnets, plus a section of arguably his most famous play, some vaudeville, Afro-Caribbean dance, large-scale puppets and a Beyoncé number.

Patrick Mullins, Virginia Stage Company’s interim artistic director, is the producer of the festival, which is now in its fourth year. In a phone interview, Mullins dispelled any notion that this version of Shakespeare in the park is for the high-browed.

“When you study Shakespeare in English, it’s considered high art – and the poetry is beautiful, it’s true – but (in the 17th century) it was very accessible to the masses. Shakespeare’s work was presented to people of all class levels. It was pretty rowdy and bawdy and fun,” he said. “He was doing it in an arena that was accessible to everybody. It was fun and you could watch the show and have a beer in your hand and yell back. It was much more interactive than the way we present Shakespeare today. So that ties back to that Greek Dionysian spirit. It’s a smart presentation and beautiful poetry, but also it’s a great spectacle and just fun” (Fun, except maybe for the part when CORE Theatre Ensemble presents its piece on the drowning of Ophelia from “Hamlet”).

He said the multicultural production begins with dancers and some audience members giving flowers to the Elizabeth River as a gift to the Orishas, deities of the Yoruba religion. From there, the show moves through the sonnets, interspersed with contemporary songs and vaudevillian pieces.

“Recitation of sonnets provides the connective tissue, from act to act and from segment to segment,” Mullins said. “It is a bit of a variety show in that you get these different pieces and eventually the pieces link back to themselves and end up in one huge celebration. So we kind of roll between music and sonnets and visuals and humor until it all climaxes in one final moment.”

In the past three years, the Midsummer Fantasy Festival was spread throughout the park to provide more of an experimental, audience-interaction setting. The new show is focused on the main stage.

“The trickiest part in the past was that people didn’t quite know what they were coming to,” he said with a laugh. “So they want to know, ‘Where do I put down my blanket and where do I set up my stuff?’ By focusing on the central stage, it helps the audiences be a little more comfortable and gives us a little more focus.”

The festival might be a good way to introduce Shakespeare to children who, if they don’t dig the poetry, likely will be enthralled by the show’s giant puppets, or have fun with the hula hoops that Festevents will spread throughout the park.

The show was designed to enchant, Mullins said.

“It’s a little bit trippy, but it’s also smart. It covers a broad cross section of things. And there is something about sitting out and watching a performance at the golden hour, facing the river, where you can see the boats go by in the background and you can hear great music and poetry and see the great visuals. It just makes for a beautiful night that you don’t get to experience in any other way around here. This is something really connected to the area, and it’s really fun and unique.”