Saturday, February 19, 2011

My Thoughts on "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at South Coast Repertory

This afternoon, I ventured into the OC to attend South Coast Repertory's production of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

You may remember I attempted a similar venture several weeks ago, but I was unfortunately swallowed up in a massive traffic jam that abruptly halted me in the doldrums of Downey, crestfallen and ticketless.

Today, I was determined. Today, I would get to South Coast Rep!

The traffic gods were with me, my friends, as I arrived with a bit of rain, but without incident in Costa Mesa just after 11 am. After a few blissful hours spent mallratting at the South Coast Plaza, I headed over to SCR for the matinée.

Having only been in the second smaller (and highly charming) Juliana Argyros theatre previously, I was keen to see what the Segerstrom (the "main stage" theatre) was like. Several summers ago, I went on a tour of SCR and was able to walk on the main stage, but had never seen an actual production. There honestly isn't a bad seat in the house in either theatre, and both are absolutely lovely to behold, although I am still a tad partial to the Argyros' inherent intimacy. Inside the Segerstrom, I was pleased to note that although I was relatively far back in the audience, I still had a direct eyeline to the stage as for the majority of the performance, the seat in front of me was empty.

Keenly watching me unload my water bottle and trusty pen and notebook, an elderly man behind me commented on how well-prepared I was and inquired as to whether this was "a project for school." Having inherited my father's Dorian Gray-esque youthfulness, I thanked him profusely and explained that the last time I had homework that I didn't give myself was a good decade ago. Reveling in this tiny plum of a compliment, I settled myself in for the show.

Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR

We all know the basic story of A Midsummer Night's Dream – two sets of star-crossed lovers get lost in an enchanted wood on a midsummer's eve. Throw in a few fairies and a mischievous sprite and hilarity ensues. It's your basic Shakespearean SNABU (situation normal, all Barded up).

As is the trend these days, this production was much more modern in its approach. Even before the house lights dimmed, many audience members were murmuring with some disdain regarding the minimal white gauze that made a meandering trail across the bare stage. "Is that it?" I heard a woman exclaim behind me.

Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR

At the sight of Titania's grand entrance on to the stage, any hints of apprehension disappeared like...well, magic. The audience let out a collective gasp of delight and instantaneously burst into giddy applause. This is one of the many delightful things about live theatre – sharing the experience of watching a play unfold before our collective eyes. At this point, the enchantment of the afternoon truly began.

Both Cameron Anderson's brilliant set design and Nephelie Andonyadis' costume design were key elements in transporting us into the surreal sylvan world. Anderson's fairy realm of muted forest greens and browns dotted with highly original twinkles of starry light were a great contrast to the stark white, minimalist royal palace. Andonyadis outfitted the royal party in suits and designer dresses – typical tourist-wear for a vacation into the unknown – while making the fairy flock resemble your average Melrose Avenue local with a little Elizabethan punk thrown in for good measure. Titania's sexy green and gold getup, complete with peacock train was my absolute favorite.

Some enchanted evening - Lysander (Nick Gabriel), Hermia (Kathleen Early), Helena (Dana Green), and Demetrius (Tobie Windham). Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR

As the lovers become unwittingly enchanted by Puck's meddling, besides losing their good sense, literally begin losing clothing as well. Piece by piece, the couples disrobe, until they are all down to the very vulnerable position of only their underclothes. This is highly reminiscent of the early scenes in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which hapless couple Brad and Janet encounter the "mad" Dr. Frank N Furter and his band of merry mirthmakers. One wonders if this was a sly nod to the cult musical/film, which in itself could be an homage to A Midsummer Night's Dream. How's that for a potential Master's thesis?

During the hour-long car ride to the OC, I had amused myself by singing a selection of songs from Shakespeare's various plays, and there is yet another song within MSND, which I always heard in my head as a slow, ethereal, otherworldly chant (Lul-lahhh, lul-lahhh, lul-lahhh...byyyye). In this production, it was more like a selection from a hip Broadway musical, complete with dance number! Many of the transitional fairy scenes included brief, rock opera inspired interludes. One isn't sure what the Bard would think, but this unique take actually worked quite well.

Puck (Rob Campbell) gives Lysander (Nick Gabriel) a little "medicinal aid." Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR

Rob Campbell's portrayal of Puck was definitely the standout of the show. Lending a creepy, sexy vibe to the young sprite, Campbell oozed his way lasciviously around the stage, dressed like a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Within his dialogue, he interspersed small tongue clicks and random noises, which gave the character a raw, animalistic quality that I loved. At one point in the play, Puck enters the darkened theater from the back of the house, illuminated only by a glowing green lantern. Clumsily making his way through the audience, he stops to chat with several patrons, giving the play a wonderful interactive quality, which is yet another reason I adore live theatre.

One of my favorite (if not my very favorite) of all of the Bard's broads is the poor, lovesick Helena. She and I share the same passion (or perhaps obsession) for unrequited love and longing. The choice to make her a gawky, geeky, Demetrius fangirl was ideal. At points Dana Green's portrayal bordered on cartoony, but I still fully enjoyed her delivery. Susannah Schulman's sexy performance and throaty, near-phone sex operator voice gave a deliciously devilish appeal to the Queen of the Fairies, Titania. Although Nick Gabriel did well in the role, Lysander has always been such an ideal man-figure to me that to see him portrayed as a hapless dork was a little jarring and unwelcome. Having seen Kathleen Early in the wonderful, In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play) (Read my thoughts here) at SCR earlier this year as the repressed doctor's wife, it was a treat to see her again as the annoyingly naive, yet charming Hermia.

Oh, what fools these actors...I mean mortals be! Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR

Never having been a big fan of the Bard's B-story in this play in which Peter Quince (Hal Landon, Jr.) and his merry band of amateur actors endeavor to stage a play for Theseus, Duke of Athens and his soon-to-be bride, Hippolyta, I still enjoyed the wonderfully comedic, almost slapstick quality of their scenes. Their noisy entrance on to the stage was one of the highlights of the show for me. Patrick Kerr's Bottom was sublimely ridiculous, especially in the later scenes in which the troupe finally gets to stage their play for the royal party.

One of the high points of this production was its ability to truly engage the audience. Many were clapping, cheering, and laughing (one man rather loudly!) throughout the show, which lent to the community air that makes me adore live theatre. You're not just one person, sitting at home watching a film that has already been wrapped and packaged months previously, you're watching live bodies strut and fret their two and a half hours upon the stage. This production also continues my ongoing (now near hilarious) track record that any play I have seen since moving to Southern California must contain at least one man (or several men) in some state of undress. May this trend never cease.

This envisioning of A Midsummer Night's Dream felt a little like a Krispy Kreme glazed donut - delicious and filling and incredibly enjoyable, but almost too sweet. It's not like MSND is serious to begin with (Hamlet it ain't), but I missed the underlying serious, almost sinister magical quality the play exudes on the page. This was not to say I didn't fully enjoy the play, as the production's original delivery and wonderful performances made up for any of its other (very short) shortcomings.

Thus concludes another fantastic SCR experience. Special thanks go to my own little helper fairies for letting me finally experience this wonderful production!

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