Coming off recently winning four Theatre Bay Area Awards for this past year’s Twelfth Night, the Arabian Shakespeare Festival opens A Midsummer Night’s Dream that should also be a top prospect for both production and acting awards in the coming year. Shakespeare’s oft-performed, much-loved comedy of love spats and mishaps; fairy shenanigans; and a hilarious play within the play performed by six hapless, lovable working blokes is normally performed by large casts on grand stages – often outdoors – with spectacular scenic effects and whimsical costumes.
The trademark of the Arabian Shakespeare Festival is to do just the opposite and still to create a production that – in this case as in past ones – literally sparkles, titillates, and thoroughly does The Bard mighty proud. With a cast of six who each play three parts, on a stage bare save some movable blocks of wood, and with character identifications depending on singular elements like a leather cap, a pair of black glasses, or a flinging pink scarf, ASF stages a Dream that matches and sometimes exceeds the funny, fantastical, forested worlds of much-bigger productions.
For someone who has not attended quite as many productions as have I, let me provide a quick summary. Duke Theseus of Athens is about to marry the Amazon queen, Hippolyta. As they prepare for their wedding, Hermia, who is secretly about to be engaged to Lysander, resists her father’s insistence that she instead marry Demetrius who just broke up with her best friend, Helena, because he loves Hermia. Helena, on the other hand, only has eyes for Demetrius, who wants nothing of her.
Hermia’s father is enraged and insists the Duke force his daughter to marry his choice of Demetrius or condemn his daughter to death, as is an ancient, Athenian law. The Duke suggests a nunnery instead, leading Hermia to plan a late-night escape with her intended Lysander. She tells Helena her plans, who decides to betray her best friend to Demetrius, hoping foolishly that he may repay her with more attention and maybe even love.
As all hell is about to break loose when the four mixed-up lovers head to the forest, in the heavens above Oberon, King of the Fairies, voices his frustration with his estranged wife, Titania, who is planning on attending the Duke and Queen’s wedding. Oberon plans with his trickster sidekick, Puck, a way to punish his wife by using a flower’s potion to cause her to fall in love with the first beast of the forest she sees after waking from a night of slumber. Oberon wants to help the two couples roaming in the forest straighten out their love issues and sends Puck on a mission also to remedy that situation, which of course he will unwittingly only make worse.
In the third parallel story, six common laborers begin a bumbling rehearsal of a play they hope to stage the night of the Duke’s wedding. Their choice is an ill-fated love story by Ovid, described by the tawdry troupe’s organizer, Quince, as “the most lamentable comedy and the most terrible death of Pyramus and Thisbe.”
In any production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is much hilarity to come as Puck uses the love flower potion to cause Lysander (not Demetrius) to fall in mad love with Helena (leaving poor Hermia with no one), as Titania ends up falling in love with an ass (one of the laborers, Bottom, given the head of a donkey by a devilish Puck), and as our thespians lead up to their big world premiere in front of the Duke and his bride.
But as easy as Shakespeare makes it for any reputable company to glean hilarity from one of his best-written comedies, this ASF production has found through its inspired casting a way to push the boundaries even farther into sheer, slapstick silliness. Through clever, comic switches of roles by often gender-bending players, actors take on persona opposite in nature in a variety of dimensions. The mighty in power become in a second role the most humble member of society while then transforming to maybe a fairy in forested flight. And all we can do is laugh and enjoy while – thanks to William J. Brown III’s excellent, tongue-in-cheek direction – never being confused even for a second as to who is who.
John R. Lewis is the Duke Theseus, a man with aristocratic airs speaking in bombastic bursts of consonants to his subjects who have come to talk about their love problems. He is most interested in giving his stroking, tongue-licking attention to his bride-to-be (Hippolyta) while also adjusting his huge, leather cod piece that is hilariously wont to shift and fall. Mr. Lewis is also the street-smart, jiving, smooth-moving Puck who delights us with his bigger-than-life-size personality and a body form much more gigantic than the Pucks often playing the part. Among the “mechanics,” he becomes a childishly eager, always clapping with encouragement Starveling, playing a big-smiling, Southern-drawling Man in the Moon who has trouble rising at the right time.
The Duke’s intended, Hippolyta, puffs on a metal pointer that serves as her always-present cigarette as she puts on upper-class airs in her Russian duchess accent, cooing and clawing her soon-husband every chance she can get. But it is in her other two roles that make Annamarie MacLeod a solid candidate for future, acting-award nominations. As a pink-scarfed Helena who is initially spurned by her adored Demetrius, she is plucky and pouty, animated and anxious, ready to rant and quick to give a middle-finger response. Her spread-eagle temptations to a non-interested Demetrius and her over-the-top emotional responses become ever more exaggerated and laugh-producing as mix-ups in the forest multiply. But incredibly, Ms. MacLeod is even more hilarious in her third role as Bottom, a stage-hogging troupe member who tries to play all parts but who ends up starring inadvertently as the braying donkey that is loved by Hippolyta and catered to by her fairies. The role of her hillbilly-talking Bottom alone is reason enough to shower much praise on Ms. MacLeod’s performance.
Maeron Yeshiwas has plenty of opportunity also to take center stage in her role as Hermia, especially as she becomes like a chasing, attack dog with barks of biting insults when she believes Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander are all making fun of her love since Lysander is now supposedly heads over heels in love with her and not his intended Helena, thanks to Puck’s misfired prank. She also is the fairy Cobweb and the acting troupe’s director, Quince.
Some of the funniest, best-directed moments of the evening occur as Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer switches between a leather coat and a pair of black glasses to play both of the lovers who end up loving Helena, Lysander and Demetrius. The quick transformations of personality and affections are masterfully coordinated, with other actors like Puck stepping in at times to hold either the glasses or the coat so both lover-boys can be in the same scene. When she is not running around as one of the lost lovers, Ms. Schmeltzer is the fairyland Flute, who renders a beautiful lullaby to lure Titania to sleep.
Jennifer Le Blanc and Norman Gee switch sexes to play respectively the Fairy King Oberon and his Queen, Titania. Oberon is a kind of Midwestern, twenty-something good ol’ boy, wearing an air of self-defined coolness and moving with just the right subtle swivels and shakes to ensure that everyone knows that he is hip. His Titania speaks the Bard’s words with an elegant, deep voice that adds to the impressive display of comic acting, in wonderful contrast to Norman Gee’s angry and stubborn Egeus (Hermia’s father) and his snorting, rough-speaking Snout who rules in his role as the Wall that separates the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe. Jennifer Le Blanc is also the bookworm Snug who studies diligently for his role as a not-too-ferocious Lion and is a bearded Philostrate with thick and funny Irish brogue.
How many times are actors warned and yet ignore about being on stage with kids and animals? Once again, one of the evening’s best moments is thanks to Beatrice, a dog playing duo roles as a winged fairy and as the Moon’s (Starveling) pet. Beatrice suddenly employs her tongue to bring the audience almost into tears with their laughter.
Lisa Claybaugh’s simple but highly effective mixture of single-colored costumes along with the uses of Beatrice Page’s props are huge aids in helping us as audience keep the constantly changing roles separate. Joanna Hobb’s lighting with split-second changes brings the magic of the forest to full life, even with no other scenic aids. Their efforts combined with an incredibly creative director and a highly skilled cast that is clearly having a blast all add up to an evening at Arabian Shakespeare Festival’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is not to be missed.
Rating: 5 E
A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues through November 24, 2019 by the Arabian Shakespeare Festival at the Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at www.aragiashakes.org or by calling 408-499-0017.
Photo Credits: Gregg Le Blanc/Cumulus Light Photography