BWW Review: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at The White Theatre
William Shakespeare's 1595 comedy A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM is one of his most often performed light plays. Stripped down, it is a screwball romantic comedy of misdirection written across five acts in verse.
This production is performed as Community Theater on the modern White Theatre stage inside the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park under the direction of Sydonie Garrett. Don't worry about the five act thing. The show plays in about two hours with one intermission.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM is a test of whether half millennium old jokes and puns translate to 2020. Garrett, who is also the Executive Artistic Director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, possesses the most capable local hands in which to position this particular venerable gem of a show.
Syd Garrett is well known for directing the Bard's comedies to success by working hard to make them accessible to modern audiences. In this case, she has chosen to direct this version in a more presentational style than we are used to seeing. We see the actors pretty much as audiences may have seen them at the Globe Theater in London in 1596. This show is, in many cases, performed as a burlesque that was embraced by an audience who may have some trouble getting past the Elizabethan language.
Shakespeare loved puns. This play is full of plays on words. Unfortunately for us, many of the jokes depend on the way words were pronounced during the Elizabethan age by the general public. There is also the additional complication that language during that time period was exceptionally class driven. Even with a modern British accent, we might not hear the joke.
MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM is one of those shows that has been analyzed ad infinitum by the academic community. I suspect Shakespeare would have chuckled and referred the analyzers to the Neil Simon catalog.
The show is set in and near Athens. All the main characters have ancient Greek names despite their mostly modern dress. The show actually could have been entitled GREECE 1. Anyway, there are three main plotlines. The first plot lives mainly to give us an excuse for the other two to exist.
The Duke in charge of Athens, Theseus (Jon Rizzo), is about to marry Hippolyta (Chandra Ancell), the Queen of the Amazons. Hippolyta (according to some sources) is the spoils of a war Theseus has just successfully pursued against the Amazons.
Theseus is planning his wedding celebration. For entertainment, he is planning a theatrical. There must have been a shortage of professional actors, the bands were all busy, no DJs were available, or Theseus knew how to make a dollar holler. He ends up with a group of six "Mechanicals" to put on the show. These folks are workman from the city. They are Quince the carpenter (Laura Schwartz), Bottom the weaver (Brett Alexander), Flute the bellows-mender (Will Gurley), Snout the joiner or furniture maker (Deanna Mazdra), Snug the tinker (Katie Hall) and Starveling the tailor (Lauren Hambleton). Although this cast is split between men and women, Shakespeare's cast would have been all men.
Essentially and collectively they are a bad version of the Athens Community Theater. I mean this not as an indictment on the actors. One of the main jokes comes back to the Burlesquey performance mentioned earlier. Shakespeare wrote them to be bad to advance his various plots and wrap up the show.
Continuing with the complicated set up, we finally arrive at the lovers entrances and the first of two conflicts in the play. Hermia (Un Joo Christopher) and her buddy Helena (Lindsay Jane) are pretty typical teenagers. Helena has been dating one of a couple of eligible bachelors named Demetrius (James Kemper). Meanwhile, Hermia is involved with a similar looking guy named Lysander (Austin Smith).
Demetrious has broken up with Helena for reasons that are unclear, but has entered into a marriage agreement with Hermia's Dad Egeus (Ray Ettinger). There may be money involved. Predictably, Hermia throws a teenage fit.
Egeus turns to the Duke for a ruling on Hermia's duty. He tells Hermia that she has limited choices in the matter. She may marry Demetrius, kill herself, or become a nun. Unsurprisingly, Hermia and Lysander choose to skedaddle to a distant county, but to get there they must travel through an enchanted forest. She confides her plan to Helena who spills it to Demetrius and who pursues the duo into the woods. Meanwhile, the terrible acting troop has also retired to the forest for extended rehearsals.
That is most of the setup for the joke. Once this assemblage gets to the woods, it turns out that the woods are inhabited by faeries mainly the King Oberon (Kenneth England), his wife Titiania (Kendra Keller), the Queen's main person who happens to be silent (Elaine Clifford), and the King's identification challenged buddy Puck (Cat Pestinger). Oberon and Titania are quarreling. He wants to make a gift of her Indian to the Duke. She is being a pill. OK, that is the rest of the setup.
Oberon has the ability to cause various folks to fall asleep and also to disappear (kind of like Richard Mulligan from the 90s sitcom SOAP). The first somnolent victim is Titania. Oberon dispatches Puck to acquire a magical flower as a prank. The petals of the flower will secrete a potion that will cause Titania to fall in love with the first living creature she sees after awakening. This is supposed to teach her a lesson.
Remember the bad theater group and the tortured word play? One actor is called Bottom. Another name for Bottom is Ass and he is the first creature that Tatiana sees upon awakening. This poor guy is therefore doomed to spend most of the rest of the play wearing a donkey's head. It must have been a big laugh in 1595. Oberon and Puck think this is very funny.
Coincidentally, Oberon hears about the trouble in the town with the marriage agreement. He dispatches Puck to pull the same gag on Demetrius. The idea is that the couples will be righted. Too bad that Puck applies the potion to the wrong guy. Multiple times. Misdirections... Wrong lovers with the wrong partners carry on until Oberon must straighten the whole thing out with his magical powers by making everyone forget everything that has been transpiring.
We finally get to the Duke's wedding. The performance by the ersatz theater troupe is so bad at portraying a classic tragedy that the Duke declares the play a comedy. And Puck suggests to the audience that they forget everything they have seen because it has all been A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.
Whew! The White Theatre's community production of the A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM continues through February 16. Tickets are available online or by telephone at 913-327-8054.
Photo Courtesy of The White Theatre.