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BWW Review: William Shakespeare's Delightful A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at the Carrollwood Players

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Enchanting!

BWW Review: William Shakespeare's Delightful A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at the Carrollwood Players

"The best Shakespearean actors are American actors. Actually, truth be told, Spanish or Mexican actors--when they do it in English--are the best Shakespearean actors. Ricardo Montalban's Macbeth--amazing! But Americans come closest to capturing the poetry of the streets that is what Shakespeare truly is when done correctly--which it rarely is. That is, unless the American actor's trying to do it in a British accent. That's the worst." --Sam Wanamaker in Quentin Tarantino's recent novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

"It's pretty funny...what I can understand of it." --overheard at intermission of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

Is A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM William Shakespeare's most beloved play? We know that the quotable Hamlet is the closest to perfection, with King Lear nipping at its heels in that department. Macbeth may be the most thrilling, while Titus Andronicus is the most blood-drenched and violent. Othello may be the most psychologically complex, and Romeo and Juliet certainly should be crowned the most famous. So where does that leave A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM? As a comedy, its laugh-o-meter is right up there with As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night, perhaps even surpassing those. But the show itself is the most enchanting, and to audiences, the most beloved.

The Carrollwood Players has not been known for producing Shakespeare plays; the theater, which has housed so many delightful shows of all genres for decades, is not a reimagined Globe of Tampa Bay. In fact, it's been around a quarter of a century since they last tackled the Bard's works. That may change, because the recent hit production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM in their intimate black box is a joy to watch from beginning to end, with lots of audience laughter and even more smiles. It's a guaranteed good time, and I hope this fine community theater builds on this success, starts something new with works that are, ironically, over 400 years old.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, a perfect play to watch in the middle of the summer, is what you get when you merge the farce of dueling young lovers, mischievous faeries, and, lastly, rude rubes who have to put on a play entitled, "The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe." It features some of Shakespeare's most enduring characters, including the hammy Nick Bottom (who eventually winds up donning the head of an ass) and the jokester Puck (whose line, "What fools these mortals be," is so ingrained in our culture that we seem to keep repeating it after watching the evening news).

The Carrollwood production is the fastest I have ever experienced, clocking in under two hours (which includes an intermission). The play has been creatively edited and reimagined for the small black box. Twelve actors play just twelve characters, and if you've never seen or read the play, you will not miss anything. Those who like their theatre short and sweet will be happy, but purists will be incensed. Missing are so many important characters--Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, Philostrate, faeries like Cobweb and Peaseblossom, and, saddest of all, Robin Starveling. Yes, there is no fake moonlight or dog in this production, and I for one not only missed Starveling's Moonlight, I was heartbroken by its absence.

Although it doesn't feel like a Spark Notes version of the comedy, it sometimes seemed like it could be re-titled A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, JR.

The main issue with such a severe cutting is that some of the show's key themes are now missing. Take, for example, Egeus, Hermia's father who wants Demetrius, not Lysander, to wed his daughter. It's a key point to the entire young couple's dynamics, and without it, we don't quite get the attachment of Lysander and Hermia as they exit, escape, into the forest. We also miss the parallels to the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play performed later on, perhaps the funniest sequence in all of Shakespeare. And I miss the young couples watching that show, snidely ribbing on the Pyramus and Thisbe production, perhaps unaware that it's really describing their potential plight. We laugh throughout it, but we also understand that, if this was not a comedy, what happened to the separated lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, who both kill themselves like Romeo and Juliet, might have also happened to Lysander and Hermia if Egeus walled them apart. Without these mirrored plotlines, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM seems haphazard, all over the place, and without any purpose or meaning other than to entertain. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But if you don't know that these elements are missing, you're going to have the time of your life. Because these performers, led by a talented director, own this production.

Nick Noelte, a theater teacher at Berkeley Prep, will make his students proud with his work as Demetrius. Looking like a younger Michael Cerveris, he is a strong presence, adding an unmatched physicality to the role; my favorite moment of this production might be when he wakes up under a spell and falls in love with Helena the moment he sets eyes on her. The audience was in stitches. His fight scenes with Lysander (a very strong Chase Tomberlin, whose put-downs to Hermia are artfully awful), the two of them running around the black box so much that the audience got out of breath watching, were other highlights of the show.

Hermia is well-played by Cheyenne DeBarros, and we feel her connection, her love, to Lysander. When she holds onto his leg, and he--no longer in love with her due to Puck's mischief--tries to get rid of her, we feel sorry for her while we laugh at her current misfortune. She also provides a phenomenal, realistic slap to Demetrius' face that was loud as an explosion; if there was such a category during award season, this should be honored Slap of the Year.

As Helena, Lauren Michelle Parker is simply sensational. We understand her motivations and root for her; it also helps that she's slightly taller than Ms. DeBarros' Hermia. Ms. Parker resembles Nicole Kidman, and my one qualm is that she may be too beautiful for the role. It's even more hilarious having someone homelier cause the two young men to fight over her; with Ms. Parker, you can imagine men falling over themselves for her without the need of faery intervention.

Doug Ronk is commanding as the King of the Faeries, Oberon, and the lovely Laura Fleming Roberts, in a mask, is his equal as Titania. Ronk pretending to be an invisible tree is absurdly hilarious. As Puck, Sarah Scott is immensely likable, snorting her laugh in the most endearing way. I loved the moments when Puck juggles colorful scarves behind Oberon's back or giddily eats popcorn while watching the lovers fight.

The mechanicals, those blue collar workers putting on a show, are obviously audience favorites. Donning a Robin Hood hat, Alex Andrews as Peter Quince, their director, leads the pack. He's so fun to watch, playing with his words and their volume; his joy in acting is infectious. As Snout, Karenha Iweha hilariously shouts each line. I like how her arm hurts as she's playing the Wall (a great touch), and a few people in the audience even applauded her last moments.

As Snug the Joiner, Alexa Sheppard is having the time of her life, speaking in a bizarre deep voice. Even when she doesn't have any lines, she's always in character, always reacting to what's going on. And her odd roar must be experienced to be believed; it sort of squeaks and screeches, marvelously so, sounding like something I've heard on an old Yoko Ono album.

Brooke West, another well-known local theater teacher (at Sunlake High School), makes a wonderful Francis Flute. I like how she pulls a small booklet with moon information from the back of her pants and presents it to Peter Quince (who won't touch it directly; great choice). Best of all, when Flute as Thisbe dies, Ms. West treats this as a serious moment, not a funny one. I like this for a variety of reasons: 1) She doesn't compete with Bottom's over the top ending (how could you), and 2) It resonates the underlying meaning of the show, that if this were not a comedy the same thing would have happened to Lysander and Hermia. Terrific work.

Trish Farber makes a formidable Nick Bottom, her incredible voice resonating throughout the theater. I have enjoyed watching Ms. Farber onstage before--in Calendar Girls and A Christmas Carol--but she enters a new realm here. This Bottom purrs, growls; jubilantly over the top, a theatrical force of nature. As Pyramus, in the death scene, with constant self-stabbing, much of the audience fell over themselves in hysterics. In the show, Bottom wants to play all the parts in Pyramus and Thisbe, and I wouldn't mind someday watching a one-person show with Ms. Farber portraying all the roles; I will follow her anywhere.

The set is minimal but functional. The actors all don black, which is a confusing costume choice for a show that should be lighter than light; we're dealing with faeries here, not Macbeth. In some ways, it reminded me of the MIDSUMMER production in the movie Dead Poets Society (the one where Robert Sean Leonard, donned in black, was miscast as Puck, despite what Mr. Keating said, and should have played Lysander). We suspend our disbelief with such outfits, but in the end, the wardrobe doesn't add or subtract to the proceedings. This is a showcase for actors, not costumes. That said, Bottom's donkey mask evokes creepiness, like it belongs on Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; it's something Hannibal Lector would be proud to wear.

Director Cindy Goeken leads this merry band of players in a joyful, well-directed, fast-paced, heartfelt and hilarious production.

It's been 25 years since the Carrollwood Players last challenged themselves with Shakespeare. Judging by the reaction of this production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM--with every performance sold out--this should become an annual tradition, where the Bard will be on their schedule every season. And I hope to be there, notebook and pen in hand, ready to be enthralled.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at the Carrollwood Players ends its run on Sunday, July 18th at 2:00 PM.


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