by Terrance Mc Arthur
A Valley summer night is good for a Midsummer Night’s dream, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is good for a Valley summer night.
The Woodward Shakespeare Festival presented Midsummer in the Rotary Amphitheatre during its second season, and it has staged a new production of the Shakespeare play to open its ninth season. I have a fondness for the show, since I had a non-major part in the 2006 staging. This year, director Aaron Spjute has a different vision.
Gone is the cheerful Athenian woods of the earlier version, where spritely spirits tease humans and take pictures of them while they sleep. This is a darker world, a place of shattered pillars and twisted trees, where children are stolen to join the fairy band, and where the Fair Folk don’t just play tricks on mortals; they might even eat them.
OK, Cliff’s Notes time! An Athenian couple (Aaron McGee, Suzanne Grazyna) run away into the woods because her daddy (Thomas Nance) wants to wed her to another suitor (Evan Wade), who has abandoned the girl’s best friend (Errin Baird), and the best friend tells the lout so she can be with him while they chase the young lovers. A group of workers want to perform a play of a mythical tragedy for the marriage of the king (Russell Noland) to the captured queen of the Amazons (Farrah Johnson). In the woods, the Fairy King [hereafter known as the F.K.] (Benjamain Baxter) and the Fairy Queen [the F.Q.] (Brooke Aiello) are at odds over who should have a stolen child to raise and play with. The F.K. wants to trick the F.Q. and sends his buddy/servant Puck (Mohammed Shehata) to dope her with a flower that will cause instant love with any living thing, and to pour the drug into the eyes of the lout for good measure. Drops are poured into the wrong eyes, girls are in the wrong places, and the young Athenians become a hopelessly-confused love quadrangle (a triangle with an extra side). Buddy messes with the would-be actors and puts a donkey’s head on one of them (Richard Adamson), who wakes F.Q. and (I’m sure you’ve figured this out) she falls for Donkey-Head. After a lot of running around and the shouting of verse, the lovers are back where they should be, F.K. and F.Q. are reconciled, and everybody gets married and watches a play.
Shehata (Roat in the Second Space Wait Until Dark) is a crazed, sharp-toothed Puck, thoroughly disgusted with all the work he has to do, eyes aglow with mischief, shimmering in what looks like one of MC Hammer’s old pairs of pants.
Aiello played F.Q. Titania and Amazon Hippolyta in ’06, and repeats the Titania part here (Note to Brooke: You are still my Queen, O Radiant One). There is more edge and anger in this interpretation, but she still has moments where her giddy sweetness comes through. She is fantastic; I mean what can you say about a woman who has successfully played Hamlet?
Adamson is the temporarily-donkey-faced Nick Bottom, the only performer using an accent, a low-Cockney reminiscent of Benny Hill (who actually played the part in 1964; Kevin Kline and James Cagney have also played the role). His character is big, brash, crass, and self-important, which would be inexcusable if he wasn’t also rather dim. Trying to rein in Bottom’s ego is the unenviable job of the amateur acting troupe’s leader, Peter Quince, played by GJ Thelin, who has long known the secret of cold fusion nuclear energy that scientists have tried to perfect. Armed with super-thick glasses and a pile of books to stand upon, she raises frustrated rage to a fine art.
Among the Athenian lovers, McGee as Lysander is energetic and attractive, with a talent for slapstick that runs in the family. He is paired with Grazyna, a petite powerhouse, and romance and silliness are on the menu of love. Errin Baird (Luciana in WSC’s Comedy of Errors) is willowy and red-haired as the spurned Helena, cheerfully chasing Wade’s Demetrius, sort of a nicer-looking John Shuck type.
Noland is Theseus (of Labyrinth and Minotaur fame), who will wed the buckskin-clad Hippolyta (Johnson), but there is a slight fear in his eye as he begins to realize that he is in deeper than he thought, getting something more than a submissive love-slave, and she revels in her own feminine strength.
Baxter is a Jovian, bearded, and solid-looking Oberon, with a wild power. Nance is a furious father, and Charles West is the Philostrate who tries to manage the entertainments and state business of Theseus.
This is a different Dream, where lovers are lawbreakers and the fairies can bite. Enter these woods with care.
Midsummer runs through July 6, playing Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, except for July 4 (the 7:30 pre-shows of past seasons are not being continued). The WSF stage is at the north end of Woodward Park, near the dog park area. The show is free, but admission to the park is $5 per car. Premium seating can be purchased for $10 at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/381862, and further information can be had at http://www.woodwardshakespeare.org/ and you can check out a Q and A about this season with the executive director of the company here in KRL.