Wednesday, May 9, 2012

ASF: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Intern Company, under Greta Lambert's astute direction, have created a sprightly touring production of Shakespeare's A  Midsummer Night's Dream that has been taken to several schools and to The Tipping Point as well as performances indoors and outdoors at ASF.

Eight actors play all the roles with quick costume changes and excellent script editing by Ms. Lambert, who knows the play well, having played Titania in the inaugural production of The Dream when ASF moved to Montgomery from Anniston.

She has honed the script to its essentials so it is performed without an intermission, keeping the story lines and character relationships clear, and affording each member of this talented ensemble opportunities to create memorable characters.

A staging challenge no doubt at each new venue on its tour, this production loses none of its spirit or audience connection in its "home" theatres; in fact, it has probably gained some.

One of Shakespeare's most popular and accessible comedies, the play's three "worlds" are the court of Athens, the working-class Athenians, and the fairy kingdom. How these three intertwine through telling their various love stories is the crux of the matter and the source of much of its comedy -- and in this production, all the actors have roles in each of these worlds.

Once this convention is accepted, the roles are never confusing -- subtle and lightning fast costume changes, fluid staging, and most of all this talented cast's ability to switch mannerisms for each role sustain interest, heighten the comedy, and tell the story clearly.

Ms. Lambert's metaphor sets the earthly Athenian kingdom in a world of gypsies [a clever nod to the gypsy lifestyle of many actors] and the folklore associated with them. She follows Shakespeare's lead that suggests that forests are magical places where fairies live (complete with such human foibles as love, jealousy, etc.), where the rules of the "real world" are suspended, and where mortals are transformed.  As the script "holds...the mirror up to nature", so too do Athens and the woodland fairy kingdom mirror each other.

And what energy these actors bring to this production! Played around a gypsy cart that transforms into the forest [in the Octagon there is a forest backdrop], they keep the action flowing so fast that their energy is contagious, and the vigor of their performances and their expressive bodies & faces engages young and old alike for the duration of the performance.

In the double roles of worldly and fairy kings & queens, Johnny Viel [Theseus/Oberon] and Bliss Griffin [Hippolyta/Titania] connect so well that we instantly believe their relationships and their commanding statures. As the two pairs of Athenian lovers -- Candace Scholz/Jay McClure and Laura Bozzone/Craig Hanson -- the intensity of love is heightened by their being mistakenly drugged by the fairy Puck [Ivan Perez] to love the wrong mate, and a scene in which they "have it out" as it were, is a knock-down furiously comic fight. -- This trick is a mirror of Oberon's drugging Titania to fall in love with the first creature she sees upon waking; in her case, she awakes to see the rustic Bottom [Colin Meath] who has been transformed into "an ass" by Puck when he was awaiting his cue in a rehearsal of a play he and others were to perform at Theseus & Hippolyta's wedding.

When the spells are finally taken off their victims and a kind of order has been restored to one and all, it is time for the play within a play to be performed. The story of Pyramus & Thisbe as performed by the "rude mechanicals" before the king and queen is a silly as they come, but done with pure innocence and over the top histrionics by these well intentioned tradesmen with Bottom as the "leading man".

Though "ill met by moonlight" at the start of the play, Oberon & Titania are reunited by the end; Theseus & Hippolyta are married as are the lovers; and everyone can celebrate in a dance. There are several dreams in the play [nightmares, wishes, etc.] and though we might agree "what fools these mortals be" and that "reason and love keep little company nowadays", we have been entertained so well that the memory of this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream will last a long time.