The first thing you notice at North Bay Shakespeare is that Hamilton Amphitheater park is remarkably beautiful. Why does it seem that every time the government closes a base—in this case an Air Force base—we find out that they’ve been hogging all the prettiest land? It’s a shame Hamilton Amphitheater is hardly ever in use. It’s not only a sizable outdoor oasis, but it also happens to boast possibly the best acoustics I’ve ever encountered in a theater of its kind. The actors’ voices really snap, and you can hear even the faintest asides and breathy reactions. The people of Novato are truly blessed with this lovely space, which will be hosting North Bay Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Comedy of Errors next season, and director Hector Correa’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the rest of this one (through October 5, 2008).
This happy group of players presents a most thoroughly refreshing production of Midsummer as our Bay Area summer comes to a hotter than usual close. Correa, who’s also directed at the American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Rep., isn’t afraid to let the play’s language do most of the heavy lifting. In Shakespearean theater, the less you feel the director’s touch, the better the production. Much of the beauty of A Midsummer Night’s Dream lies in subtlety, and Correa shows his adherence to a belief in casual grace and a loyalty to Shakespeare by resisting the urge that so many directors fall victim to—that urge that drives them to over-sexualize or overtly push a subjective interpretation on an audience. Correa has obviously found a way to inspire the company to do their best work without stifling the writer everyone ostensibly came to see. Frankly, I wish more directors would do the same.
Costume design becomes much more delicate when companies are working with doubling, and Bessie Delucchi, like a Philippe Petit of costume, does a tremendous amount with very little. Sure, there are tutus on the fairies and long ears on Bottom, but there are also fluttering birds and butterflies on sticks and heart-shaped sunglasses and great wigs. My favorite is Puck (L. Jeffrey Moore), who somehow simultaneously embodies the stern order of Oberon’s might and the discord and humor of the fairy world in a short suit and vest, mottled stockings and glitter. It might have helped that Moore is the tallest person on the stage, but the costume, itself, is perfect.
The stage and scene by Rose Ann Raphael and Liz Seibert are true accomplishments as well. Quite often, sets that are too simple lose the magical foresty stuff. And the reverse can also occur; I’ve seen Midsummers that work so hard to make the set jungley only to lose the contrast between the law and order of the court and the freedom of the forest. Raphael and Seibert find a happy medium that sacrifices nothing. Plus, there’s a gigantic yellow moon stage right that enhances my own favorite scene in the play.
My favorite scene is when Moonshine, played by Kyle Stampfli in this production, gets fed up with the peanut gallery and snaps at Theseus (Stanley Spenger). The short interchange foils the fear of hanging expressed earlier by the Rude Mechanicals, and it kicks off an elegant echo of all the moon talk at the play’s opening between Theseus and Hippolyta (Marissa Keltie). The echo ends with one of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare, “Moonshine and Lion are left to bury the dead.” The line comes from Theseus after everyone else’s favorite part, the mucked-up death scene of Pyramus and Thisbe, played here by Ben Knoll and Brady G. Boys, respectively and expertly to win lots of laughs.
The playbill conspicuously leaves out the Rude Mechanicals’ manager, Peter Quince, but if you were paying attention at the beginning of the production when artistic director Jeffrey Trotter introduces the show and asks people to sign up for their emailing list, you’ll notice that it is he who takes on the role of Quince and manages our beloved, hard-handed boys. It’s a warm nod in the direction of everyone who likes to think about Shakespeare playing that part, and a small reward to all the good audience members who listen to the preshow stuff.
Equally amusing are Harold Pierce and Joe Lazzaretti as Lysander and Demetrius, who are completely believable as competitive young men in love with young women and competition itself. They are consumed by their foolishness to the point that they don’t care how foolish they’re being even if they realize it. And the women for whom they strut and fret are delightful. Jayne Deely (Helena) has a way of speaking with a very slight lisp that is so adorable you can’t help but fall in love with her and wonder what Demetrius is thinking. And Beth Deitchman has a glowing presence that cannot be ignored as Hermia. The two women present a conundrum indeed. They seem like life-long friends, sharing a cute special handshake, and both of them are worth fighting over.
Ben Knoll as Bottom brings something sweet and sad to the role. He isn’t just someone to laugh at, but also someone to care about—a deeper character than most permit, and Knoll nails it. All of the actors perform pretty wonderfully, including a surprisingly memorable, skinny, squeaky-voiced Fairy and Philostrate played by Elspeth Kohler. I don’t think I’ve ever called Philostrate in A Midsummer Night’s Dream “unforgettable” but that is certainly the term I would use here, and refreshingly so.
North Bay Shakespeare encourages picnicking, and their patrons are as down-to-earth as their company, inviting all out for a delightfully dreamy experience.