(Flintridge, CA) July 2, 2011 – One thing can be said about a production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: it definitely helps if the show takes place at an outdoor amphitheatre: the sounds of the birds and the soft winds blowing through the trees, the obsidian night skies serving as a backdrop to the scene, and let us not forget about the moon staring down at the players with wry amusement. In the case of the Vanguard Repertory Company at the 2011 La Canada Flintridge Shakespeare Festival, the Byrnes Amphitheatre at the Sacred Heart Academy (which overlooks the entire, picturesque valley like a benevolent sentinel) serves as a wonderful venue for this ambitious production. Director Sam R. Ross and his brilliant actors bring this adapted, updated, and shortened romantic comedy to life with side-splitting results.
The play usually begins with the announcement and wedding plans of King Theseus (Clay Wilcox) and Queen Hippolyta (Kirsten A. Snyder), as well as plans for the arranged marriage of the spoiled pretty-boy Demetrius (Zach Kraus) and the feisty Hermia (Elisa K. Blandford), much to her chagrin. Lysander (Jeramy Felch), the man she truly loves, and Helena (Lauren Dobbins Webb), who has eyes for Demetrius, also dread this unlikely union. But instead, Co-adapters Mathew Burgos (who also plays Peter Quince, with neurotic, hapless glee) and Sam Ross not only trim the normally two and ½ hour play down to ninety minutes, they also begin the show by introducing Puck (Jason Vizza)---a devious fairy---as a Master of Ceremonies who narrates the tale and oftentimes controls the players, courtesy of his fairy magic, his two assistants (the adorable Addie Wolfe and Lara Repko) and his suave guitar playing. Before proceeding with main story that involves the four young lovers, Puck introduces the audience to the laborers who want to act a tragedy for the royal wedding: the dominating Bottom (David Ross Paterson), Director Quince, the altitudinous, yet sensitive Flute (Walter Wolfe), the tinker Tom Snout (a sly and sexy Eliza Kiss), and the stuttering joiner Snug (a sympathetic Sean F. Toohey). Puck THEN directs the show to the main storyline of the lovers, who escape into the magical forest. This action segues to the Fairy King Oberon playing a prank on his queen Titania (Wilcox and Snyder again) in order to steal an orphan she has sworn to protect.
This new structure of presenting Puck as the “narrator” and participant of this play, as well as trimming the list of characters and the excess dialogue of Shakespeare’s text to a one act-play, is very reminiscent of the Oregon Shakespeare Company’s 2002 production of Macbeth. In that show, they edited the play down to an 80 minute run time, with only six actors performing the essential roles. The streamlined adaptation of Dream is a true testament to Ross’s and Burgos’s craft as storytellers. The direction is smooth and the pacing is frenetic, but not out of control; the actors blocking and choreography around the minimalistic stage is absolutely flawless, as well as the light design by Ric Zimmerman, whose various cues go well with Puck’s musical magic. Bethany Richards’s costuming updates the story to a 1950’s Long Island Hamptons upper class beach setting, which compliments the personality of the characters perfectly.
However, the actors are something to behold. Wilcox and Snyder are quite impressive with their dual roles. Wilcox, with long raggedy hair and beard (looking like a strung-out professor from Berkeley) is hilariously timid as the whipped Theseus, and absolutely hedonistic as Oberon. Snyder’s frightfully controlling Hippolyta is balanced out by her sexual (yet vulnerable) Titania. Vizza’s Puck, adorned in light blue tux shirt and jacket, but dressed in black casual beach pants and sandals, is perfectly cast as the charismatic Puck, who serves as both prankster and charming balladeer. The four lovers have excellent chemistry with each other, as well as demonstrating phenomenal physical comedy skills, especially Blandford’s cute and spunky Hermia, whose shrill-like calls for Lysander, as well as her physical features, are very reminiscent of a young Susan Lucci during her fanatic moments on morning daytime programming and commercials. Kraus’s Demetrius is a fantastic privileged brat, and Felch’s Lysander is a pleasantly, lustful beach bum who takes pleasure from abusing his competitor (and shows sexual frustration when Hermia refuses his advances). And Webb is awkwardly sweet as the homely Helena, who needs to use an inhaler when she runs after Demetrius for long periods of time.
And then we have the mechanicals. All the players have fun with their comedic adventures during their rehearsals---especially when Puck transforms Bottom into an unique type of “ass” (more on this later)---and when they perform their tragedy in front of the royals, most notably the scenes between Wolfe’s Flute (who begrudgingly plays the woman Thisbe with a falsetto) and Paterson’s uber-ham Bottom’s portrayal of Pyramus. Wolfe’s comedic skills are perfectly honed as Flute by showing his reluctance to play a female role once again (and considering his tall stature, who can blame him?). He is also hilarious when he breaks down and cries when his feelings get hurt multiple times by the demanding Quince. But during the tragedy that he performs with Bottom, Wolfe shows his dramatic flair when Flute’s Thisbe mourns the suicide of Pyramus, which leads to Thisbe killing herself as well. This gripping performance understandably draws the attention of the other mechanicals in the acting troupe, making this scene one of the most poignant moments in the overall play. And then we have Paterson’s diva of a Bottom. Dressed in a Frank Sinatra-like fedora, Patterson swaggers and preens like a washed-up Off Broadway Prima-Dona whose eloquence of the Bard’s poetics matches his comedic charm. But the moment he is transformed into an ass---which resembles a 70’s version of Elvis Presley with donkey ears, Patterson’s skills as an actor are in full bloom with his dialogue in Elvis-ese, as well as The King’s stagger. It is evident that Paterson is enjoying himself on stage, as well as the rest of the cast, making Vanguard’s production a true gem in the hills of Flintridge.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened July 1 and runs to July 29
Byrnes Amphitheater, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy
440 St. Katherine Dr.
La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011