Tuesday, July 12, 2022

A Midsummer Night's Dream (review)

Photo by John Dimitri
 Spoilers ahoy! 

I love a good re-interpretation of a classic piece of theatre.  This includes a gender-swapped Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew in the Old West, and Tamberlane as performed by Klingons.  Personally, I find this usually works best when one dives further into the play rather than spiraling off in a possibly interesting direction.

Open Fist's latest production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is such a dive, centered around a simple question (confirmed to me by director James Fowler) that almost seems obvious but I've rarely heard (or in this case, seen) asked:  Whose dream are we seeing?

The answer here--the dream of slaves in the pre-war American South.  Now, this has at least one vast advantage from a technical side.  It has another advantage (but also disadvantage maybe) on a purely artistic side.  Technically, Shakespeare's meter lends itself very well to Southern accents, the drawl and rhythm, the use of dipthongs and the like blending with iambic pentameter very smoothly.  Artistically, this both echoes the world of the play (Ancient Athens) and the play's original production (the police state known as Elizabethan England) as well as our current world (the Civil War having officially ended less than two lifetimes ago, and its aftermath all too vividly alive today as a simple glance at the news can show).  For this very reason, the production will strike a chord with some, yet feel jarring to the least with others.  

Essentially, at the start we see Theseus and Hippolyta (Bryan Bertone and Heather K. Mitchell respectively) as Southern Bourbons, casual and arbitrary masters of all they survey, expecting and receiving instant subservience.  In such a world, when Hermia (Sandra Kate Burck) wishes to marry a man she loves, i.e. Lysander (Dylan Wittrock), rather than the man her father Egeus (Alexander Wells) it seems to make a horrible sense said father has the right to have her executed or forced into a nunnery.  

But when the dream begins, its the slaves who suddenly take on entirely new roles.  The Rude Mechanicals become artists, albeit amateurs, who have the leisure time to put on a play (within the play).  Likewise other slaves become otherworldly powers, fairies of immortal power and glory, able to fly or dance amid moonbeams.  Central to the latter is Queen Titania (Ash Saunders) and her husband King Oberon (Phillip C. Curry) whose marital strifes lead to an entwining of the Rude Mechanicals with their Court, along with the silly shennigans of the Hermia and Lysander, along with Helena (Ann Marie Wilding) and the man who loves fanatically, Demetrius (Devon Armstrong) who is himself the official betrothed to Hermia.  All end up in the woods, i.e. the domain of the fairies, who play tricks on them but ultimately seek to make their lives better.

Central to all this proves Puck, played by Monazia Smith, in many ways THE role in the play, loyal and mischievous servant to the Fairy King.  She does a splendid job, becoming quite possibly my favorite Puck of any I've seen.  The whole cast overall is very fine indeed--Syanne Green,  Erica Mae Mcneal. Azeem Vecchio,  Malik S. Bailey, Debba Rofheart, and especially Michael A. Shepperd as Bottom, the male prima donna among the Mechanicals.  Frankly, many might object to the folding into what is obviously a farce such heady subjects as the thwarted desire for human liberty, but methinks all that remains in the text.  Indeed, one reason we still do Shakespeare's comedies so much more often than many comedies of his peers lies in this.  He knows the stuff of all comedy is also the stuff of tragedy (and vice versa).  This is literally a play where a father threatens to have his own daughter killed for falling in love after all.  And the free will of at least one character is ripped away, pretty much forever.  

A Midsummer Night's Dream plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until August 13, 2022 at the Atwater Theatre Village, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90039.

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