Cal Shakes rounds their 2009 season with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, coproduced by Two River Theater Company in Red Bank New Jersey. Two River’s Artistic Director, Aaron Posner, directs this mostly gleeful yet sometimes dark production with an inventive eye, bringing much music and Chorus-like narration to this dreamy comedy. Fresh faces share the Cal Shakes stage with the tried and true, and most of the newbies work. In fact, most of this production works, and what doesn’t quite make the cut is still sharp with intrigue.
Patterns and shades of blue in a towering backdrop flow into the stage and down the stairs leading to the audience. The flat design oddly creates depth on this otherwise sparse stage that eventually offers doors, grows ladders that act as trees, and cradles oversized pillows on which the mixed up lovers sleep and fight. Perhaps the most mesmerizing part of Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set design is the full moon looming above. Peter West’s lighting design that casts imposing shadows around the theatre throughout the production also casts a heavenly reflection, of sorts, of this moon in the clear night sky above Bruns Amphitheatre, somehow emphasizing the starry sky above, creating an open universe for this play and a brilliantly lucid dream as our eyes are drawn upward. This magical feeling is further emphasized by the transcendent and melodious howling of Doug Hara’s Puck, who seems to have some otherworldly connection to the moon and the skies above. Perhaps reaching here, but Puck is the name of one of moons of Uranus, the planet named after the ancient Greek deity of the sky. Of the planet’s twenty-seven known moons, twenty-four have names from Shakespeare’s plays, such as Miranda, Ariel, Titania and Oberon, and of course there’s Puck. Both of these Pucks wrap a girdle ‘round its globe at night, and both are mysterious entities.
Hara’s spry Puck works without a doubt. This hobgoblin grasps his pre-Elizabethan roots planted in somewhat devilish ground. With West’s lighting, this Puck looks downright sinister, and when left to his own devices, one gets the feeling that this sweet hobgoblin is capable of much more than breaking the legs on your stool. While Puck is usually seen as a sidekick for a more powerful Oberon, newcomer Keith Randolph Smith errs on the side of over the top sitcom comedy. While he looks the part of forest royalty, Smith is rather whiny, absurd when he jumps up and down in laughter, garbled when he roars his lines, and too excited—in a childlike way— for the reserve of the Fairy King. Even if Smith is trying to portray the absurdity of jealousy, he comes across as being more jealous of the absurd. He also seems an incapable match for his Titania, played by Pegge Johnson. Johnson plays a strong queen—in fact, all the women in this production embrace strong characters. She and Smith look oddly alike as the fairy queen and king, with shaved heads and earrings and similar dress—hardly androgynous but similar. Even Puck has a shaved head. These are the only three spirits portrayed in this production. Scenes with Cobweb, Peaseblossom and the others are left out or portrayed by Hara’s narration or by a somewhat confusing but visually intriguing spritely red light in the hands of Puck.
The lovers are all very different, which eliminates any notion that love is blind. Erin Weaver as Hermia is a tough little scrapper with a solid right hook. She usually looks like she’s ready to rumble, with a masculine stance and center ring bounce in her step, but Weaver shows her soft side in a beautifully sung duet with her Lysander. Avery Monsen is charming and gallant, handsome and romantic as Lysander, even when he takes a sock in the nose from his little vixen. Richard Thieriot is less obvious as Demetrius, though it’s tough to forget a guy who enters the stage zipper down. Helena, portrayed by Lindsey Gates, is fabulously funny, adding her own little asides, winces and cries throughout the play, giving her character its own habitation and name. Fight director Dave Maier and choreographer Erika Chong Shuch, along with West’s inventive lighting design, work together to create exciting fight scenes and slow motion chaos between lovers and lunatics alike.
And then there are the mechanicals, led by none other than Cal Shakes’ crowd-pleasing comedian Danny Scheie as Bottom. Although their original seated circle formation on stage while casting their play within the play is awkward—what audience wants to look at the backs of actors when they could so easily enjoy their fronts—the rest of their antics are well received with due laughter. Scheie needs no props and no kicks to ooze comedy. His timing is impeccable and his ability to slightly contort his body or distort his gaze makes this gay and bully Bottom tops. Scheie steals the stage every time.
Ted Barker (Starveling), Dan Hiatt (Snout), Joan Mankin (Snug), Patty Gallagher (Quince) and Lance Gardner (Flute) play the rest of Scheie’s posse, with their oncoming comedy erupting in the end with their take on Ovid’s tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisby. Gallagher might be the most enthusiastic Quince ever, doing everything shy of pulling a Molly Shannon (Saturday Night Live), breaking into a cheerleader pose and smelling her armpits, in order to direct a successful show for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding day at night. Hiatt turns the role of Wall into a laidback musical exposé complete with cockney accent; Scheie and Gardner turn this tragic love story into a real lust affair as Pyramus and Thisby; Mankin plays a lion that apparently escaped from an insane asylum (in fact, Mankin is frighteningly funny throughout, whether as an unstable lion or an eruptive joiner), and together these mechanical work. Utterly hysterical.
Music and sound are big parts of this production, be it Hara’s music of the spheres or his echoes into the night; the battle of the microphone at the play’s start, the musical adventures of the mechanicals with Hiatt’s Snout on guitar; the playful strums accompanying a harmonious duet between Lysander and Hermia singing Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me,” or the always exciting compositions of sound designer Andre Pluess. I’m eternally touched when Pluess includes his simple and simply perfect signature piano chord in the midst of exciting composition, here adding a pristine chime whenever magic occurs in the play. And I can’t help but believe he and Posner were influenced by the hit television show “Glee” when bringing this show to an end with an exhilarating, exciting, and well-choreographed bergamask. An entire production of Midsummer in this vein would work well with this creative team of players at the helm.
Olivera Gajic’s costume design is sort of all over the place, with some punky layers on Hermia, patterned chaos on Helena, a bit of Madmen, some Dick Tracy, some everyday casual garb and some elegant gowns. In a way, I suppose you can say everyone has a style much like one would see in any ol’ crowd—less the harnessed rack worn by “Thisbe” in rehearsal, their loosely Elizabethan play, or Gajic’s brilliant nightmare of a donkey head. The lack of cohesion serves to place this play in any ol’ time and any ol’ place rather than confined to Ancient Greece or Elizabethan England or 1980’s middle America or, or…
And this is important for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially when focusing on the universal themes of love—falling in and out—on jealousy, on the concept of time, and then, of course, on the arbitrary nature of it all. This production of Midsummer speeds up time, emphasizing warriors conquering then wooing to wed their wives or lovers falling in and out of love in the blink of a tainted eye, all wrapped up in a fairy-forged tornado of jealousy. This speed is best sped by portraying Puck as not only a shrewd and knavish sprite, but as this production’s Greek Chorus, commenting on this play’s themes and activities both on and off the stage in order to catch us up to speed. It’s a little confusing, as the events of the play seem to fall out of order sometimes when Hara rhythmically delivers his summaries, but it’s also interesting to hear Puck tell us in his own words what he’s done to Bottom in this Shakespeare play turn adaptation. The twists and turns Posner adopts mostly work. Those that don’t quite are still intriguing ideas. Perhaps revisiting this play in the future—perhaps in the vein of a musical—is on Posner’s inventive palate. If so, this current production at Cal Shakes is one hell of a fun prologue.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs September 16 – October 11 at the California Shakespeare Theatre Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd, Orinda, CA 94563. Information can be found at http://www.calshakes.org/v4/home.html.