This is Shakespeare for a summery Texas evening in Austin's Zilker Park. The wide and gentle slope above the Hillside Theatre is the perfect place to sprawl out on a blanket as the stars come out, the players play, the music sounds, and the action flits before you.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a favorite, in part because it is sweet and not particularly demanding. Shakespeare runs masques with the Duke's court, with the fairy court, with the clownish tradesmen, and with the ever-so-earnest and therefore inevitably comic young lovers. Add a few portions of fairy juice, feature Puck for mischief, and transform the braggart clown into an ass—what's not to like?
Ann Ciccolella enlisted St. Edward's University polymusicalist Michael McKelvey to do up Midsummer with 1960's style music. This offers an Austiny bit of odd retro flair, kind of like those 1960s rock shows that the popular and long-established Zach Theatre keeps putting on year after year.
Why the 1960s? That's not really clear. The company is doing A Midsummer Night's Dream without much effort to reflect any of the Summers of Peace and Love. Music by McKelvey and co-composer/lead guitarist Cesar Osorio generally consists of interval pieces. Most of the musical punctuations drop into the action as if dialed up on a car radio. The cleverest bits are the cheery, whistling theme music of the rude mechanicals, and the thrumming accompaniment for the fairies' dance, played while clearing the forest for the final scenes.
Does anyone need a recap? Dramaturg Cristina Gutierrez from the University of Texas provides an erudite page of commentary in the program and another of glossary, just in case you want to go all scholarly on a lazy evening.
Jennifer Madison's fairy costumes are fun, but I was a bit disconcerted to see Duke Theseus wearing a Marine uniform without insignia. The young lovers are properly foolish and appropriately cast, clad and played to look as if they are teens in need of a few more years to figure themselves out.
Director Ann Ciccolella re-jiggered the professions of the lively and amusing rude mechanicals, including among them a postman, a plumber, and a waitress on roller-skates. With Madison's campy costumes, the group struck me as somehow strangely familiar. It wasn't until the big dance preceding the finale, when they came on doing a concentrated high-stepping dance line, that I got it: the Village People! Right? Or not?
John Aaron Bell's set is minimalist, offering a bower stage left for Titania's snooze, but otherwise chiefly consisting of scrims and curtains lit evocatively by Austin's master lighting designer Jason Amato.
Ciccolella and Austin Shakespeare recruited capable talent for Midsummer. Gwen Kelso and Jenny Larson as Helena and Hermia are familiar favorites. Michael Dalmon as Nick Bottom is a revelation—antic, comic and well spoken, even if he does choose to use a Jed Clampett voice when playing an ass. William Moses is a thoughtful yet playful Oberon. Macey Mayfield has a tiny role as Moth, but she has lots of stage presence and a fetching twirl. Andrew Matthews is eye-catching as Peter Quince, looking very young Austin, and Erin Molson plays both the roller-skating Robin Starveling and Moonshine. Nathaniel Lahay as Francis Flute overcomes the initial mailman costume showing his bony knees to become a credibly comic-anguished Thisby.
There's no admission charge, so you're getting a whole lot more than you pay for. When the actors come around at intermission, be generous. These folks are fooling, but they aren't lying—Austin Shakespeare needs and really appreciates everything you drop in the bucket. My advice: forget the small change and give them some folding money. Midsummer may be Shakespeare-lite, but this production presents an attractive magical world for your evening in the park.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs April 29 – May 30, 2010 at the Zilker Hillside Theater, 2100 Barton Springs Road, Austin, TX 78746. Information can be found at http://www.austinshakespeare.org.