Saturday, January 10, 2009

American Shakespeare Center: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Now, THAT'S entertainment. I haven't checked, but I suppose this is at least the third production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that the American Shakespeare Center has done since the Blackfriars Playhouse opened in 2001. It has to be the funniest. And the audience loved it, laughing more than any audience I can remember for Shakespeare, and demanding an extra curtain call (or whatever the term is if there is no curtain) when it was all over. The cast seemed to be having a great time, too. I plan to see this production again, and I hope everyone who loves theater (or comedy, or music) gets to see it, too.

But I'm way ahead of myself. There were two large student groups in the audience tonight—or maybe that was one huge group, sitting in two blocks—and I'm always afraid that students won't "get" Shakespeare. But I needn't have worried. They were definitely into it, right from the pre-show entertainment. Which was great. As always, the company sang several songs that were relevant to the story they were about to tell, and during the last song—featuring the delightful voices of Miriam Donald and Alyssa Wilmoth—the characters in the opening scene of the play appeared, so that the action could begin as soon as the musicians dispersed. And that opening scene is terrific, even for Shakespeare; it sets up beautifully the conflict between Lysander and Demetrius over Hermia, establishes Lysander and Hermia's plan to run away together, and reveals Helena's plan to let their secret out. And we're off! Gregory Jon Phelps is a terrific Lysander to Miriam Donald's bubbly Hermia, and I also enjoyed Chris Johnston's Demetrius, who was hilarious trying to run away from Sarah Fallon's aggressive Helena. This quartet of young lovers is wonderful, as are Chris Seiler as the Duke and Erin Baird as Hippolyta. Aaron Hochhalter is very funny as Egeus, Hermia's father, in his insistence that she marry Demetrius.

And then there are the "Mechanicals"—the tradesmen who are planning to put on a play to celebrate the wedding of the Duke and Hippolyta. Here, Aaron Hochhalter is Peter Quince who is directing the men in their play (which is a nice bit of meta-theater, since Hochhalter has been doing a good bit of directing and assistant directing with the ASC). He's very good, especially at the end when they actually put on their play. There's also John Harrell as Bottom. This is such an important role for this play and Harrell makes it zing. He's outrageously funny during the rehearsal and again when he is under Puck's spell, and then again during the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. Harrell is worth the price of admission. But we're not done yet! Also among the Mechanicals is Thomas Keegan as Flute, who gets chosen to play Thisbe to Harrell's Pyramus. Keegan is hilarious. He's a big guy with a deep voice, which makes him a convincing tradesman, and his character's reluctance to play the female part shows clearly on his face and in his posture. When he launches into his falsetto, the contrast is uproarious. And then when he shows up in full drag (what an outfit!) for the play, the audience is rolling on the floor. Harrell and Keegan make a great team, and the staging is wonderful—amazing, given that there are no directors during the Actors' Renaissance Season. (René Thornton, Jr. is also funny as Snug the joiner; I loved his shy little waves and cautious roar as the lion in Pyramus and Thisbe.)

Which brings us to the Fairies. Thornton is Oberon and does an excellent job there, as does Alyssa Wilmoth as Titania, the Fairy Queen. But the key role here is Puck, and I was skeptical about seeing Benjamin Curns play the part. Physically, Curns is no fairy. But no matter. He does a fine job of carrying out Oberon's instructions and casting spells on the young lovers, Bottom, and Titania, and there's some great comedy in his scenes with Oberon.

This is a spectacular production that shouldn't be missed. Which is absolutely amazing when you remember that this is the Actors' Renaissance Season—there's been very little rehearsal and no direction. It proves that the actors in the ASC are superb and we're lucky to be able to experience their work. I can't wait to see the other four shows this season: The Revenger's Tragedy, Henry VI, Part 1, The Changeling, and The Blind Beggar of Alexandria. What an AMAZING opportunity this is.

What fools these mortals be!

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