(Costa Mesa, CA) January 29, 2011 –For the past 9 months, I have seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream four previous times; three of those as a critic. And the idea of seeing this popular, magical play once again on January 29th filled me with a sense of dread. And the fact that the production was updated to an amalgam of two contrasting, modern time periods only added to my apprehension. I am a purist when it comes to setting Shakespearean productions to period wardrobe and scenic design, and if the Bard’s play is going to have a contemporary vision, the production had better be in expert hands. However, after seeing South Coast Repertory’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, these mild concerns have proven to be unfounded. Director Mark Rucker’s vision and the comedic timing of his talented cast illustrate once again the superior craftsmanship this Orange County theatre troupe possesses.
Three enchanting tales are intertwined within Dream. The first tale involves four young, passionate Athenian lovers ( Kathleen Early, Tobie Windham, Nick Gabriel, and Dana Green) who escape their elders and their king Theseus ( Elijah Alexander) from being forced into arranged marriages. As the two couples hide in the forest that surrounds their kingdom, King of the Fairies, Oberon (also portrayed by Alexander), and his faithful servant Puck ( Rob Campbell) use all sorts of magic and mischief to take an orphan child away from Queen Titania ( Susannah Schulman, who also plays Theseus’s lusty bride, Hippolyta). Meanwhile, a group of local rustics, led by Peter Quince (a hilariously harried Hal Landon, Jr.) and a buffoonish weaver Bottom ( Patrick Kerr) travel into this same forest to rehearse a play for King Theseus’s wedding. And as all three colorful groups clash together, the forest fairies conjure their charms and spells to set everything right for everyone involved.
The time period which this production takes place is a mixture of 20th Century England (the Athenian Royal Palace) and a modern day “ Burning Man” atmosphere (an annual, rustic event in Nevada that encourages artistic evolution and individual self-reliance, like a desert hippie commune) where the forest and fairy scenes take place. And Director Rucker beautifully creates the blueprint for the fantastical world like a meticulous architect. To bring this blueprint into reality, Scenic Designer Cameron Anderson and Costume Designer Nephelie Andonyadis conjure their own creative magic into the mix. Anderson deftly bathes the Royal Palace with white silken drapery and period English furniture, while segueing to the colorful, gigantic forest scenes with ease. In terms of the costuming, Andonyadis provides a classy regal touch to the Royals, but then goes all out with the fairies using patchwork loin cloths and other decorative attire that match the hedonistic atmosphere perfectly. What is fascinating is the arrival of the mechanicals serves as the transition from the reality of the palace to the fantasy of the forest scenes. Although dressed like typical, working class handymen, the mechanicals arrive and leave the stage by way of a “ mutant vehicle,” a mode of transportation commonly used at the Burning Man retreat where the entire automobile is literally put together piecemeal by abandoned junk parts and is fully operational. And Anderson’s “ Mechanical Mobile”---composed of two motorcycles, a gypsy wagon and a wall/performance stage composed of wine and beer bottles---captures the thematic transformation between reality and fantasy and, eventually, a marriage of both worlds.
But Dream is truly blessed to have a completely flawless, brilliantly gifted cast to maintain the frantic pacing of the play. When it comes to the romantic lovers, Rucker didn’t play it safe by casting four leading man/woman roles. Instead, he decided to cast four physically diverse actors. Although Windham’s boastful Demetrius is rugged and athletic, Green’s smart, sensitive and insightful Helena possesses the air of a brainy, self-deprecating “ugly duckling” who, as the play progresses, grows into a graceful swan very reminiscent of Anne Hathaway. Gabriel’s Lysander is portrayed as a brave and good hearted “silicone valley” nerd, which compliments wonderfully with the spunky, affectionate, and compassionate Kathleen Early, whose Hermia has the sweetness, composure, and biting humor of a very young Betty White during the Golden Age of television. All four performers have an impeccable sense of comic timing that flows from one scene to the next, never lagging in any way whatsoever.
As far as the mechanicals are concerned, Richard Doyle, William Francis McGuire and John-David Keller shine as Robin, Snout, and Snug, respectively. But as he did with the four lovers, Rucker goes against type once again by casting the stocky Kerr as Bottom (usually a role for a big and boisterous actor) and the bulky Michael Manuel as Flute (who has to dress as the princess Thisby during their performance for the king). Instead of being overbearing and obnoxious, Kerr’s Bottom is a well-intentioned, but annoying little know-it-all who is very similar to his “Noel the Mole” character from the NBC television series Frasier. His performance drives this gifted crew, and his scenes with Manuel’s flawless Flute is a lesson in Shakespearean comedic acting where his actions and eloquence can bring tears to the audience’s eyes…through laughter.
However, the standout performances in the play are Alexander, Schulman, and Campbell. All three actors are cast in two roles ( Campbell also plays the king’s Philostrate) and they easily transform from one character to another with the ease of a chameleon. Alexander’s Theseus is a snobbish, prim prude who is easily dominated by his bride to be. But his Oberon is a total 180 degree change into a libidinous, arrogant, extroverted, passionate ruler who is as unbridled as nature itself. Even though Schulman’s Hippolyta and Titania are similar in terms of their aggressive sexuality, it is her Titania that glows with sensitivity regarding the Indian baby in her care and her outrageous disgust over her romancing Bottom (who was transformed into an ass). Her chemistry with Alexander’s Oberon smolders, and it is truly a pleasure seeing their fiery exchange. But Campbell carries the most as the impish and suave Puck (his reserved snobbish Philostrate is a nice scene stealer, too). This playful forest spirit needs an actor who not only has a firm grasp of The Bard’s poetics, but he or she must also have the frenetic energy that composes this character, as well as the stage presence required to maintain the audience's attention. And Campbell made his presence known in film, most notably as one of the doomed cowboys hunted by Clint Eastwood in the Oscar winning Unforgiven, and as Reverend Hale in the 1996 film version of The Crucible, opposite cinematic heavyweights such as Daniel Day-Lewis and the late Sir Paul Scofield. Campbell’s Puck is a true Trickster of the woods: running, dancing, strutting, bragging, climbing and leaping, and even singing (courtesy of the beautiful melody composed by John Ballinger and Ken Roht). His charm and comedic charisma are unmatched, making S.C.R.'s first 2011 theatrical production a dream come true in Orange County.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened January 28 and runs to February 20
South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Photos by: Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR