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BWW Review: Sassy, Sexy A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM Opens the Season at Alley Theatre

Reviewing a Shakespeare play always seems a little presumptuous. I mean, it's not like I'm going to find fault with the writing. The characterizations are always good, and the plot always gets us there. Pretty much everything that falls within the playwright's control is a given, and has been for the most part of 400 years. Of course, that still leaves the direction, the acting, the sets, the costumes, the lighting, and the music, if any.


So let's begin with the direction. Gregory Boyd has such a deft hand with Shakespeare, it seems like a second language for him. Unerringly, he goes straight to the core and works outward, bringing the various elements into such sharp focus that you almost think, as you watch, that you're doing it yourself. "How clever I am," you say. "However did I think of that?" Under a lot of directors, tinkering with Shakespeare is fraught with peril, and many have been dashed upon the rocks trying to sail those stormy seas. Boyd strikes out boldly, and never looks back. For this production he tinkers a lot, and with great effect, bringing the piece into the 21st century without losing any of the conceit of the original.

As we open, we see Hippolyta (Josie de Guzman), Queen of the Amazons, striding rather noisily onto the stage, looking around, and striking an impatient pose. You can almost hear her saying, "What a dump!", a la Bette Davis.

Theseus (John Feltch), Duke of Athens and Hippolyta's betrothed, enters, giving orders. Hyppolyta is not impressed. At all. This spare action sets the tone for an impending marriage of equals. Then the plot thickens; in fact, it all but coagulates.

Egeus (Jeffrey Bean) is out of sorts with his daughter, Hermia (Elizabeth Bunch), because she refuses to marry Demetrius (Michael Brusasco) because she is in love with Lysander (Chris Hutchison), who loves her. That leaves Helena (Melissa Pritchett), who loves Demetrius, who doesn't love her. Got it? Well, try to keep up, because things are going to get hairy before long.

Egeus orders a tearful Hermia to marry whomever she's told, Hermia says she won't, Demetrius demands his rights, Lysander vows to run away with her, and Helena pines for Demetrius. That should hold you, plot-wise, for the moment.

Now for the play within the play. Enter a hearty band of amateur players, their enthusiasm far outreaching their abilities. First we have Quince (James Black), the writer and director of the piece, along with company members Bottom (James Black), Flute (John Tyson), Starveling (Todd Waite), Snout (Paul Hope), and Snug (David Rainey). They are eager to a fault, and after some wrangling over the casting and a couple of addenda to the script, they settle down to rehearse, with gut-busting results.

Enter Oberon (John Feltch again), and Titania (Josie de Guzman, also again), who decide to amuse themselves with the mortals by magic. Oberon instructs Puck (Jay Sullivan) to distribute a love potion strategically so that the lovers may end up with their respective choices, while playing a dirty trick on his wife, Titania, at the same time. A merry mix-up ensues, and star-crossed lovers get even more star-crossed, but all's well that ends well, to coin a phrase, and everyone is sorted by the dénouement.

It is a genuine pleasure to see such a capable cast going through their paces with verve and a certain aplomb. When an ensemble so obviously enjoy what they are doing, it connects instantly with the audience, and a full house roared and applauded throughout the performance. Nothing compares with the collective experience of an audience in live theater, and in our digital age of entertainment, it's doubly true.

Kudos all 'round for the cast. Josie de Guzman and John Feltch in their double roles of Hippolyta, Theseus, Oberon and Titania are properly imperious, standing above the fray, but not able to resist participating.

Jeffrey Bean as Egeus is blustering and incensed as Hermia's father, but positively embodies the hapless Quince, the playwright and director. I can't help thinking that Shakespeare must have incorporated his own experience with both in this characterization. It's especially close to home.

The rest of the players in Quince's opus, separately and collectively, are, in a word, lovable. Refusing to see themselves for the object of ridicule they are, each strives his best, against all odds. It's like watching a school play, where all the participants are in the third grade. James Black does a memorable turn as Bottom, especially as he spends much of his time with an ass's head over his own. John Tyson is a standout in his role of "Thisby's" mother, but they all inhabit distinct personalities with their individual tics and foibles.

Elizabeth Bunch is very much the mixed-up maiden as Hermia, and has a wonderful way with physical comedy, particularly in a scene where she clings to the object of her affections until she quite literally has to be stepped out of.

Chris Hutchison as Lysander defines the concept of callow youth. Whether loudly professing his love for Hermia, or inappropriately singing it, he wears his heart on his sleeve to the point of irritation, and Michael Brusasco as the haughty Demetrius, just wants a wife. He has been promised a wife, and by thunder, he is going to have one.

Melissa Pritchett goes all out as the love-lorn Helena, especially in her dealings with childhood friend and adversary Hermia, and her single-minded pursuit of Demetrius is a master class in determination.

Add to these Jay Sullivan as mind-blowing, bumbling, sex-on-a-stick Puck, Oberon's minion and purveyor of magic, and you have the whole, if you'll pardon the expression, package.

That just leaves sets, costumes, lighting and music.

Scenic design by Vincent Mountain is unexpectedly spare, but to great effect. A moonlit scene in the forest is particularly breath-taking.

Judith Dolan's costume designs are all over the place, sometimes sexy and exotic, sometimes naive, sometimes comic, but always in service of the production. Titania's gowns are particularly splendid.

Lighting design by Jaymi Lee Smith is superb. The audience is often unaware of the part lighting plays in a production, but in this instance all the magic and enchantment of the setting would not exist without it.

And finally, suspended above the stage in a sort of 21st century musician's gallery, live music and sound are performed by Ryan Chavez and Mike Whitebread.

So there it is - a perfectly glorious evening in the theater, courtesy of the Alley and William Shakespeare. Go see it if you can.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM runs through November 5, 2016 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, please visit alleytheatre.org.


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