Monday, September 8, 2014

Inadvertent Theseus: A Midsummer Night's Dream @ Shakespeare & Co

photo Kevin Sprague
Shakespeare & Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Tony Simotes, placed the action in the Jazz Age of the mythical land of Nawlins, on a thrust stage overhung by twisting branches, gas streetlamps, and spanish moss.

Theseus (Rocco Sisto), having long since ditched Ariadne on Naxos and assumed the Dukedom of Athens, appeared in a crisp white suit, in the company of Hippolyta (Merritt Janson), his jazz singer and erstwhile Queen of the Amazons conquest. Egeus (Annette Miller) was a Lady straight off the Southern Families register, in high dudgeon over her daughter Hermia’s refusal to marry the young squire of her mother’s choosing.  You know the story: Hermia loves Lysander and not Demetrius, but rules are rules and custom is custom. Theseus lays down the Law: death or the convent of Artemis. Hippolyta, observing from the margins, was not at all down with this. Shakespeare leaves her speechless. Here she seized that speechlessness to represent her rage.

Oberon, Puck photo Kevin Sprague
Simotes went with the option of double-casting Theseus and Hippolyta as Oberon and Titania – the walls between worlds are especially thin in these parts, as any southern gothic vampire will tell you, and trouble in one is like to bleed into the other. If it gets a little warped along the way, it’s the humidity. If Hippolyta has conquered Athens with jazz standards, Titania’s a guitar-slinging Queen of the Fairies. If Theseus seems a little nonplussed at his bride-to-be’s attitude, Oberon is thoroughly bemused by human behavior in general.

But Oberon has his fixer Puck (Michael F Toomey), a speedy and enthusiastic fetcher, goggled and dog-eared -- we might think of him as Muttley to Oberon’s Dastardly. He sported a pooka’s tricked-out utilikilt and a carpenter’s belt for holding the items of his dogsbody trade: a notepad (very useful), a staghorn-hilted dagger (useful but unused), a rubber fish (?).

 Quince, Flute photo Kevin Sprague
In the same vein as Professor Longhair’s alternate career as a janitor, the Rude Mechanicals were a group of ageing hipster tradesmen theatricals. Peter Quince (Jonathan Epstein) had a stylish red rug for his old grey head, and a buttery cod-French Quarter accent that put all the emphasis on the end syllables and dragged out or left out much of the rest – “You gon’ fright the DuchESSE!” he insisted. Later Pyramus and Thisbe will talk "through the chaaaank of the waawl.” It totally worked. 

Johnny Lee Davenport, a big presence with a voice to match -- he was a memorable Lord Mayor of London in Richard III a few years back -- had all of Bottom’s requisite, uh, acting skills at his command. (Fortunately he has some of his own as well.) He left no doubt that, should he be called upon, Bottom the Weaver could do all the roles in any lamentable comedy you could name.

Bottom, photo Kevin Sprague
The main crux of the story – the tangled adventures of Hermia (Kelly Galvin), Lysander (David Joseph), Helena (Cloteal L Horne) and Demetrius (Colby Lewis) in the wood – unfolded pretty much the way it always does, with a great deal of slapstick athleticism. Props to the actors for sustaining that level of energy without resorting to antic overkill, and props to the costume department (so to speak) for giving everybody kneepads in the same fabric patterns as their underclothes.

It’s a musical play to begin with, and, as you might imagine, jazz, blues, gospel, etc. were woven all through this production. You entered the theater and found your seats to Taj Mahal. The fairies favored acoustic slide guitar. Act 2 began with a full-cast (and audience) contrapuntal This Little Light of Mine / I’ll Fly Away. There was a band of fiddle, trombone, washboard, and banjo uke – they played an interlude of We’ll Meet Again to eulogize Bottom. In the Mechanical’s play, Lion and Moon got leitmotifs: Pink Panther theme for Lion, Blue Moon for Moon (played on horn kazoo by Peter Quince in the improvised one-man-orchestra pit from which he also acted as slightly frustrated prompter).  Alexander Sovronsky, tripling as music director, band member, and Flute/Thisbe, put together a soundtrack that kept it all rolling. 

Rude Mechanicals, photo Kevin Sprague

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