“Lull, lull, lull-a-by, Lulla, lull-a-by…” A catchy tune is what you’ll naturally remember in this play transformed by San Diego State University’s School of Theatre into a 1960s inspired musical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You remember the tune, and the mischievous fairies singing harmonious melodies while dancing to a live rock band.
Director Peter Larlham’s production of Midsummer draws inspiration from 1967: the beginning of The Summer of Love. It’s a time when teens rejected the lives their subordinate parents seemingly unconsciously chose for themselves. This allows cast and crew to be uninhibited in their acting and creativity. In order to draw out this theme, the cast intently studied Shakespeare’s words and particular lines. This attention to detail comes out in both articulation and phrasing, making their take on the play easier to understand.
The music is fun for the audience as well as the cast and crew. Shakespeare’s lyrical words are set to the tunes of theatre major Thomas Hodges’ composed music from the years of ’64 to ’68. Hodges created beat driven music and melodies that enhance the rock edge of Anthony Simone as Oberon and Gracie Lee Brown as Titania, as well as the purity of Michelle Tymich’s voice as Moth. The chorus of fairies is influenced by the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. Band members Thomas Hodges on keyboard, Jon Wat on bass, Mark Sherman on guitar and Bradley Sattler on drums have a great rapport in this newly formed band.
Set, lighting and costume design all mesh with the Summer of Love theme. The stage is a forested green field made of putting green. In the back are hidden stairs that enable the cast to slink down the stairs, disappearing into the horizon—particularly effective when Puck and the fairies dance away. The inverted white umbrellas in the sky are lit in blues and greens, adding to Elizabeth Ryan’s ethereal set design and Michelle Caron’s lighting. Many of the costumes help develop the characters or help the actors get into character. Costume designer Valerie Henderson dresses Titania in royal purple with material draping from her shoulder and tied to her wrist, her hair in a lovely up-do by hair and makeup designer Sara Zuniga. Mark Sherman as Theseus has a John Lennon/Sergeant Pepper style in a military jacket, round glasses and bobbed hair, adding to the tantalizing costume design.
Many of the actors stand out for their unique strengths in their delivery, physicality and singing. The lovers are appropriately comedic and confusing at the same time. Fernando Huerto as Lysander and David Armstrong as Demetrius cannot walk off the stage without body slamming each other, arguing over Hermia to the point of slapstick. As Armstrong tries to run away from Amanda Dasteel as Helena, he trips and rolls down the steps, reminiscent of a John Ritter move in Three’s Company. Dasteel, just as humorous, portrays a desperate Helena as she holds onto Armstrong’s leg. Huerto as Lysander delivers his love of Hermia tenderly, but is equally convincing when the flower juice changes love’s direction toward Helena. Davenport as a sweet spoken Hermia surprises the audience as she tries to fight Dasteel while Huerto and Armstrong break things up.
John Smith, a tall and rangy Puck, holds back nothing as he literally jumps into the air, exuberantly narrating and singing. There are airs of Peter Frampton here; maybe it’s the visually stimulating fringe vest that opens to a peace sign painted on his chest. Maybe it’s the frizzy blond hair that screams of some 1971 rock musical depicting a 1960’s icon. Dressed as a hippy, Smith sings an entertaining duet with the dreadlocked Anthony Simone as Oberon adding excitement to the production. Simone’s tonal quality is easy on the ears while he commands the stage with ease. Simone sings a duet with Gracie Lee Brown as Titania, whose commanding voice is as widespread as her arms. In a cast of perfect pairings, Derek Smith as Pyramus and Nathan Bell as Thisby throw the audience into fits of laughter.
The mechanicals are in a play within a play that reads like a Romeo and Juliet spoof. Bell as Thisby sports fake breasts, a dress, a shawl and work boots. His fake kiss with Smith occurs through a human wall with cereal boxes draped from his arms to look like bricks. Smith’s recurring death scene inspires laughter both onstage and off, leading to Bell’s own death scene, during which he takes Pyramus’ sword and pierces his fake breast while speaking in an ascending shrill of undetectable words. This sends the audience into hysterics.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream recovers equilibrium in the end. Puck promises us, “Jack shall have Jill / Naught shall go ill.” Whether you trust him or naught, SDSU’s Midsummer is a dream you can believe in.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs April 30 – May 8, 2010 at the San Diego State University School of Theatre, Don Powell Theatre, 5500 Campanile Dr., San Diego, CA 92182. Information can be found at http://theatre.sdsu.edu.