A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most performed (and thus well-known) of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven (or so) plays. Herein lies the challenge. How does one create a production of Midsummer that’s worth talking about without adding too much jargon to its plotline? Shakespeare Santa Cruz offers an updated Athens, complete with fashion vixens and victims, cell phone interruptions, GPS directions, and a duke who jogs with his secret servicemen. The mechanicals work like a well-oiled machine, and although they don’t always stand upon point when delivering their hysterical version of Pyramus and Thisby, these actors are spot on in their comedic timing. The Athenian wood is ordered by the chaos of nature, and by a larger than life king and queen of the fairies that carry an erotically tribal element. These spirits dance fairy rounds like you’ve never seen; their costume, makeup and hair design is brilliant and otherworldly, and this show’s Puck is exciting, energetic, and does back flips around other hobgoblins of the same name. Thankfully, none of this comes off as jargon. Thankfully, this is one dream of a Midsummer that’ll get you talking.
Director E. T. White offers many interesting angles for contemplation, with an overriding focus on antitheses. There’s the opposition of orderly Athens versus the disorderly woods; there’s the beast in the man (and woman) and the man in the beast, love and hate, love and lust, and an interesting opposition between mortals, immortals, children and adults, between nature and humanity, and the relationship between cause and effect. All of these things must somehow reconcile, or at least achieve a state of acceptance, before this comedy can come to a concordant end.
The stage is set in the midst of the redwoods at Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, and the location couldn’t be anymore idyllic for Midsummer mischief. The players stay true to Shakespeare Santa Cruz form and run rampant over the entire glen—up and down, over hill over dale, in the trees and through the audience—in effect offering the sensation that we, too, are deep in the Athenian wood. Michael Ganio’s shoots and ladders set design is built in the guise of scaffolding, and offers the fairies a place to linger when eavesdropping on the mortals, and a place for the mechanicals to eat their lunches and cat call as the lovers make moan at the beginning of the play. It’s functional and fun, a sounding board for the mechanicals’ hard-handed orchestral introduction, and above all, it offers J. Todd Adams (Puck) his own personal playground.
This production is cast with beautiful people and scene-stealers, but the biggest thief of all is Puck. When not charming the audience or lifting garb from the lovers, Adams somersaults, back flips, scales walls and trees, and leaps around the glen, never slowing for a moment. He even wraps an exciting girdle ‘round the forest glen in a magical disappear and reappearance act, positioning this Puck in two places at once. Tommy Kearney, Boris Volkov, and Zarif Kabier Sadiqi as Crow, Bluejay, and Screech-owl, present the rest of Oberon’s fairy followers, but rather than speaking their support, they trump this show’s questionable audio design and offer their opinions as their respective birds would, providing elemental sound effects in the woods and eerily lurking above the action. While Titania’s female fairy flock is visibly perturbed by Titania’s bottom dwelling, B. Modern’s exquisite costume design of shapely corsets and brilliant flowers, coupled with Jakey Hicks’ amazing hair and makeup, create a beautiful and contrasting canvas between the two fairy camps.
While Daniel-Duque Estrada (Theseus) and Elizabeth Yoakem (Hippolyta) are the power couple in Athens, Aldo Billingslea and Lanise Antoine Shelley are two forceful powers to be reckoned with in the wood. This king and queen of the fairies wear their royalty well. They are passionate, although their passion works better when they are separated versus together onstage, especially in not quite perfectly danced numbers, choreographed by Patty Gallagher, during with the couple can’t seem to get into sync. Billingslea is also directed to engage in a couple of karaoke moments, but his sing-along is hindered by incessantly poor audio crackling in and out over the loud speakers. This is nothing that can’t be fixed—perhaps they could put one of the mechanicals on the job—but it must be fixed if Oberon is to gain any serious street cred in this forest. Shelley’s Titania is sensual, fierce and exotic. E. T. White also makes a point to showcase her monologue about the seasons and the affect of earthly discord on nature’s harmony, offering a subtle lesson, moral intact.
The young lovers are wonderfully youthful and full of angst. They present one guise in front of adults, and another altogether when left to their own devices. Lenne Klingaman as Hermia is adorable, snotty and spoiled, clenches a copy of Stephanie Meyer’s vampire novel about teenage sexual tension and alienation as though it was her personal bible. She’s a rebellious teen who stomps and crosses her arms when she doesn’t get her way with her father, yet immediately loses her modest cardigan when “daddy” exits the scene. Klingaman and Miles Villanueva (Lysander) have excellent chemistry, so good that I don’t think even a love potion could keep them apart for long. Villanueva plays the casual rebel in front of Egeus (Matt Gottlieb), but proves the poetic and gentle lover with Hermia. Evans Eden Jarnefeldt is also full of contradictions, sporting his sweater vest, suit, tie and boat shoes, but looks can be deceiving, as this clean-cut youth plays violently in the woods. For the first time, I was happy Demetrius remained under the love spell, as it actually made him a nicer sort of bloke
Helena, played brilliantly by Emily Kitchens, is a mortal of a different sort. At first, she comes off as clingy and needy, and wears a silly wide-eyed smile on her face that makes one want to slap it off. This irritating little glitch soon becomes interesting, however, as we realize this tall, somewhat gawky and scorned lover in gypsy layers and cowboy boots is actually a little nutty, and if not for Oberon’s magical intercession, should probably have gone into therapy for being a hitter. I know it sounds terrible, but Kitchens is fabulous as a borderline undiagnosed train wreck.
Adams’ biggest competition for show-stealer is Scott Wentworth who plays one heck of a bully Bottom. Wentworth is a dramatic, lovable, charmingly pompous diva. He takes the range of his voice from top to bottom, wears yarn tassels of beards on his belt, and counts the number of lines in his script. He also loves to strike a pose, and with every pose he allows just enough time for a laugh before moving on to the next perfectly timed moment. Jonathan David Visser as Flute and as the most disturbing Thisby to grace the Shakespearean stage does a bit of show stealing of his own. When Wall (Chris Butler) gives Visser a wedgie, Visser gains the voice of “Mad TV’s” Stuart Larkin, and as Thisby, he is obscenely funny to the point of needing to look away for fear your eyes may go blind with laughter. The rest of the mechanicals are just as endearing, and the play within the play takes on a life of its own. Yes, this Midsummer is surely something to talk about.
A final shout must go out to the Hidden Falls Girl Scout troupe who on this particular day created their own peanut gallery in the audience stage left, gaining the attention of the actors as they responded to some of the play’s silliest and most well known lines. As a former Girl Scout, I offer props to these girls who were Girl Scout prepared for this show. As a Shakespearean, I offer mad props, as these girls are preparing to perform their own production of Midsummer tucked in the Hidden Falls redwoods. Break a leg, ladies. I can’t think of a better way to “Be Prepared” than to take note of Shakespeare Santa Cruz’ something to talk about Midsummer Night’s Dream.