It takes a lot to get a city girl out of the City, and even more to trek her into the woods on a Saturday afternoon for a hike/play. But I was encouraged by the possibility of my first good showing of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by the risk-taking, yet detail-oriented Stuart Bousel. Off I go, San Francisco to the AtmosTheatre in Woodside, with a gnawing skepticism guiding my way toward this production's first preview. Midsummer is not my favorite play. I like a good tragedy or a gritty history over comedy any day. I did, however, spend the entirety of my graduate career dissecting this play into its many parts, and have always found productions to pale in comparison to my own interpretation – all ego accounted for.
The AtmosTheatre is set within five, privately-owned wooded acres, and brags beauty around every mossy tree. But don’t plan to sit back and relax for this nearly three-hour adventure, and don’t wear your favorite shoes. You will be hiking from scene to scene—one mile in total—and although the hike is not rigorous, be sure to have your legs about you for the rough terrain. I’d also advise you leave your bladder at the top of the hill, as facilities are lacking down below.
What is not lacking is creativity and ingenuity. Sets range from small stages graced with afternoon tea to large tree stumps that serve as fairy soapboxes. Fairy beds are made within the natural contours of the woods and rocks. Every tree, every stump, sprig, leaf, branch, ray or shadow sets the scene for mischief in the wood, because all the wood is Bousel’s stage. Exits and entrances happen when and where you least expect them. You just may happen upon a sleeping Puck, or as a scene engages front and center, two lovers may be spied above, lingering toward the stage. Fairies may rush upon you as you hike along a small trail. And even when you aren’t being bum-rushed during your trek, your steps are guided by a melodic flutist (Amy Manley) drawing you toward the next scene of the play.
Gregorio De Masi’s costume design and John Daniel's "Creature Effects" are impeccable. Corseted fairies are smartly winged and seem to be adorned with only the elements of the wood rather than the usual synthetic sparkles. The purple-horned Puck, played by Warden Lawlor, is a spirit of a different sort. Short and stocky, hairy and with a grumbly—and unfortunately a sometimes too quick—way of speaking, Lawlor’s Puck is far more fiendish than Oberon. In fact, the one great deficiency of this play, outside of an unsung lullaby, is the overshadowed brawl between Oberon (Jason Peelle) and Titania (Karen Offereins), and the consequential complete loss of motive for all the actions to come. The two stand on their tree stumps and politely argue during a mid-hike interval, but the lack of a changeling boy and a bit of mis-staging leads one to focus more on the apple chomping Puckster than the fairy King and Queen. Peelle and Offereins also play a sort of blasé bourgeois version of Theseus and Hippolyta, which I found somewhat boring until I noted the definite contrast between the controlled Athenian walls and the raw and volatile nature of the wood. Peelle’s Oberon is almost volcanic, with a tendency to scream his orders in a psychotic versus authoritative manner. It’s a bit unsettling, and one wonders how such a King could run his wooded kingdom, but then again, his house is not exactly in order, is it?
Our fairy-cross’d lovers reign supreme almost from beginning to end, achieving greatness upon entering the wood. Kari Wolman as Hermia is a sassy spitfire, properly cast as short in stature but great in spirit. Both Demetrius and Lysander (Wylie Herman and Spencer McCall, respectively) are appropriately interchangeable, although McCall pulls a notable Tom Cruise as he leaps up onto a tree stump and with a widened gate, declares his love for Helena. Through the consistently good acting, and the very physical brawls and banters, shines something great in Molly Benson as Helena. Benson adds another dimension to her character by including thought and contemplation in her words. She unfolds and grows as Helena, and is an intelligent addition to the stage, no matter how distraught her character may be over the idle love of her Demetrius. More connection with her audience during her many soliloquies, easily achievable through direct eye contact, would serve her character well; even so, her knowledge of the language and fine performance cannot be denied.
The action and interaction of the rude mechanicals proves somewhat uneven, though entertaining. Bottom, played by Victor Carrion (aka the private owner of this five acres) is best when he is under the wiles of the Fairy Queen, or perhaps he is best when wearing the amazing, skeletally-constructed donkey head, again, ingeniously made from branches and other bits from the wood. Their play within the play offers some twists and turns in both action and word, permitting Allison Miller’s “Wall” a more solid standing.
After all due applause, I stood and made my way back to my car – my ticket back into the City. Hiking up the terrain, I noticed something quite lovely: My first smile after a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I almost hate to say it, but all ego aside, I do believe I am transformed.