Wednesday, April 13, 2016

ASF: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

A magical moment happened in 1985: Winton "Red" and Carolyn Blount brought the Alabama Shakespeare Festival from its Summer home in Anniston to establish a professional year-round theatre in their backyard in Montgomery. -- Under the brilliant guidance of Founding Artistic Director Martin Platt, the initial "Cinderella Season" opened with a lavish production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with acting luminaries Olivia de Havilland and Tony Randall in attendance, along with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. The cast featured two of ASF's most respected and celebrated actors -- Greta Lambert and Philip Pleasants -- in its inaugural repertory company.

So, it is fitting that the 30th Anniversary 2015-2016 season includes A Midsummer Night's Dream, this time directed by Diana Van Fossen; and there is still magic in the air.

Composer James Conely opens the show with a romantic flourish and continues to punctuate scenes and characters with motifs and a light-hearted sense of humor that carries much of the production's magic; James Wolk's deceptively simple set shifts to reveal a variety of locations, and is abetted by Brenda Van Der Weil's effective costumes to distinguish the play's three worlds: a severe aristocratic Athens of an indeterminate time, a diaphanous Classical Greek-oriented magical fairyland, and rustic patchwork clowns for the "rude mechanicals", working-class actors who [with intentional "coarse acting"] entertain the aristocrats with their amateurish version of "The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby".

An uneasy alliance between Duke Theseus [Bjorn Thorstad] and Hippolyta [Vanessa Morosco], the Queen of the Amazons, is to be secured by their upcoming marriage, but is interrupted when Egeus [Rodney Clark] brings his daughter Hermia [Becca Ballenger] to the court, insisting she marry Demetrius [Jackson Thompson] as he had arranged; however, she prefers Lysander [Matthew Goodrich] while her friend Helena [Alice Sherman] loves Demetrius. -- To thwart her father's demands, the young lovers escape to the woods outside of Athens where most of the remaining action takes place, and where the feuding fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania [also played by Mr. Thorstad and Ms. Morosco], get caught up in the love affairs of the two young couples.

Meanwhile, the clownish acting troupe meet in the woods to rehearse the play they hope to perform at Theseus' nuptials. Led by Peter Quince [Paul Hebron], the company's self-important leading actor Bottom [Brik Berkes], attempts to steal all the attention for himself.

Well, "the course of true love never did run smooth", and much of the play serves to connect these three worlds and secure the several happy marriages. With the assistance of the mischievous Puck [Alexis Camins], Theseus bewitches Titania to fall in love with the first creature she sees on awakening; Puck places the head of an ass on Bottom, so Titania instantly falls in love with him. And the lovers are similarly tricked, so there is much confusion in the woods, and lots to resolve by the end.

Ms. Van Fossen's two-hour and forty-minute production insistently drives home the exposition details so one can't mistake the complexities of Shakespeare's plot, allowing audiences to engage with the Bard's vibrant characters and enjoy the comic diversions he provides.

Chief among them are the frenetic fights among the four youthful lovers, matching extraordinary timing of Shakespeare's witty dialogue with full athletic commitment to Parke Fetch's inventive fight choreography. Well done Ms. Ballenger, Mr. Goodrich, Mr. Thompson, and Ms. Sherman.

Titania "in love with an ass" plays on audience sympathies and gets Oberon to relent on his treatment of her; and the sequences building up to it between the sensually amorous Ms. Morosco and Mr. Berkes' bewildered Bottom tickled the audience.

The downright silliness of the "Pyramus and Thisby" performance depends on the clownish depictions of the entire troupe [Andrew Dahreddine, Parke Fetch, Christopher Lemieux, and Michael Quattrone] made even more comical by Mr. Berkes outrageous characterization of Pyramus; and Mr. Hebron's sincerity and desperation in wanting to please the courtiers adds a much needed truthfulness to their attempts.

Double-casting Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania is a device seen frequently in productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Mr. Thorstad and Ms. Morosco are ably cast here to show the similarities between the real world characters and those of the fairy kingdom.

Shakespeare's magic is always at the center of this production: masterful storytelling, outrageous situations, foolish behavior, remarkable poetry, and the transforming power of true love all meet on the ASF stage.