Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Independent Shakespeare Company 2018 Production) Theatre Review

These days many of us feel a strong urge to escape into a dream world, as reality is too ugly, too harsh, too… well, too devoid of magic. So it’s the perfect time to visit the world of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the two plays that the Independent Shakespeare Company is performing at Griffith Park (along with Titus Andronicus). It had been six years since I last saw this company put on this play, and the troupe has changed a bit in the intervening years. As with the earlier production, most of the cast is in modern dress, with the faeries in more period costume. Setting up the modern atmosphere are pop songs which play through the speakers as the crowd arrives (songs like “You Make My Dream” by Hall & Oates, and “Dream A Little Dream Of Me”). The set is fairly simple, with multi-colored strips of cloth hanging in two corners of the stage, and a series of six apple boxes (painted green, pink and beige) off to the sides.

A little after 7 p.m., the actors playing Quince, Snout and Starveling welcome the crowd and give the announcements in character, reminding the audience that there is no smoking and to watch out for wild animals (and for faeries). Then the play begins with Theseus (Evan Lewis Smith) and Hippolyta (Aisha Kabia) preparing for their nuptials, with Starveling (Daniel Jimenez) taking measurements of Hippolyta’s dress, a nice touch. When Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander enter, it is immediately clear that Hermia and Lysander belong together, as their costumes are of a similar color. Lysander (Xavi Moreno) also sports sunglasses and has something of a swagger and attitude. You can hear that in his delivery of lines like “You have her father’s love, Demetrius.” Hippolyta, in contrast to Theseus, sees that Lysander and Hermia should be allowed to be together, and she reacts strongly to Theseus’ “Either to die the death,” and that reaction leads to his “or to abjure/Forever the society of men.” Then, when Theseus bids her “Come, my Hippolyta,” she walks away from him, forcing him to call to her, “What cheer, my love?” (Later, when Theseus changes his mind about the couples, Hippolyta kisses him happily.) Helena (Julia Aks) wears a blue dress, a color similar to that of Demetrius’ costume, again showing which people belong together. Interestingly, the design at the base of Helena’s dress is the same as that of Hermia’s, another nice touch drawing comparisons between the two women.

Modern music is sprinkled throughout the production, as when the mechanicals enter to “Come On Eileen.” (Later, when Titania bids Bottom to sing, he complies with a bit of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”) Quince (William Elsman) has their script on a laptop computer. Bottom (David Melville) has something of an ego, a character that plays particularly well here in Los Angeles. On Quince’s “You can play no part but Pyramus,” Bottom throws his script down and stalks off the stage, leading Quince to entreat him to return. At one point, Bottom speaks some of Quince’s lines, finishing the lines with him, showing he thinks himself in charge. The others then feed Bottom’s ego by asking for his advice on how to present the wall. The only odd bit of casting is Bukola Ogunmola as Flute. She is excellent, but since she is female, some of the humor is lost when Flute is asked to be Thisby in the play. At the end of the mechanicals’ first scene, there are some modern references thrown in, about staying hydrated and so on. Bukola Ogunmola also plays Peaseblossom, and is given the Fairy’s speech from the beginning of Act II. She delivers that famous speech (“Over hill, over dale…”) from within the audience. This company often makes good use of the audience space during its productions, and that is especially true of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Oberon enter from different sides of the audience. This production follows the usual casting of one actor to play both Oberon and Theseus, and one actor to play both Titania and Hippolyta. I appreciate that casting, because it invites us to draw parallels between the two royal couples.

When we first meet Puck (Kelvin Morales), he enters from a trap door in the stage. He later appears on the floor between Oberon’s legs. And when he exits, he runs off through the audience. The Demetrius and Helena chase also begins in the audience. When Demetrius (Jose Acain) tells Helena, “Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit,” there is kindness and pity in his voice, which is another nice touch. Interestingly, Helena’s line “We should be woo’d and were not made to woo” gets a huge applause from the audience. She is hilarious later in the scene where she wakes Lysander. When Hermia (Katie Powers-Faulk) and Lysander enter through the audience, there are some brief modern jokes about cell phone reception. And when Hermia bids Lysander to lie farther away, he picks a spot among the crowd to make his bed, again making great use of the audience space and getting the crowd involved in the action. Puck, also in the audience, asks for help in finding the Athenian.

There is a lot of good physical humor in this production, as when Lysander and Demetrius are crawling over each other in their efforts to get to Helena. Helena treats them both as dogs, having them go fetch, which is an interesting touch, as earlier Helena has that line about being Demetrius’ spaniel. So here we see that Helena is in a position of more strength. Hermia reaches to her lowest register vocally for the line “How low am I?” It’s a wonderful and surprising moment. Lysander carries Hermia out into the crowd and leaves her there. And it is Oberon that causes Hermia to utter her line, “I am amaz’d and know not what to say.” Stage smoke is used when Puck leads the lovers in circles. Interestingly, after Puck removes the ass head from Bottom, he dons it himself, as all the faeries engage in a dance. In addition to Puck, Kelvin Morales plays Philostrate, a nice bit of double casting, keeping the relationships intact, as he serves Theseus as Puck serves Oberon. Plus, when he as Philostrate mentions that he saw the play rehearsed, we think of how Puck watched the mechanicals’ rehearsal. This, of course, also adds to the dreamlike quality of the entire production.

The mechanicals’ performance, as you might guess, is hilarious. For it, Quince is dressed in black, playing, as he does, the stage manager. At Theseus’ request, the mechanicals avoid a prologue, and instead deliver a song. Again, the production chooses to use modern music, the song chosen being “Stand By Me” (and actually a really good rendition). As their performance moves seamlessly into a celebration involving all the characters, we hear Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” (and yes, the actors do the “So good, so good” part), leading to a dance controlled by Puck. All but Puck exit so that he remains alone for that famous final speech of the play. The performance ended just before 10 p.m. It was completely enjoyable, a wonderful break from reality. If we are lucky, we might be able to carry some of its magic into our daytime realities.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was directed by Melissa Chalsma, and is playing in repertory with Titus Andronicus through September 2nd. Check the Independent Shakespeare Company’s website for specific dates. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, coming at the end of Act III scene i. Though the show is free to attend, donations are encouraged, with cast members carrying donation buckets after the performance. There is also a merchandise booth where audience members can purchase T-shirts and sweatshirts.

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