Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the American Shakespeare Center

Are you looking for the perfect show to introduce a first time theater-goer to Shakespeare?   If so, get yourself down to the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia for their fun interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.    While this play is being performed frequently in 2012 (Classic Stage Company in New York, Britches and Hose, The Shakespeare Theatre Company & The Maryland Renaissance Festival in the DC Area) the fast-paced vibrant production now on stage at the American Shakespeare Center is perfect family friendly entertainment that clearly and crisply brings Shakespeare's language and absurd comedy to life.

Theseus, Duke of Athens plans his wedding to the conquered Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons.  Egeus complains to the Duke that his daughter Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius as she is in love with Lysander.  Hermia begs to be allowed to marry Lysander pointing out that Demetrius has jilted her best friend Helena.   The Duke rules that Hermia must obey her father or by the law either die or enter a nunnery. Hermia and Lysander decide to run away. They tell Helena who decides to tell Demetrius in order to gain his favor.    A group of working men in Athens decide to rehearse a play in the hope of being chosen to perform for the Duke's wedding.   They plan to rehearse in the woods.  In the woods Oberon and Titania, rulers of the fairies are battling because Oberon wishes to obtain from Titania an orphaned Indian boy she is raising.   Oberon instructs his ally Puck to find a magic flower to make Titania fall in love with a beast.   Oberon also takes pity on Helena and orders Puck to use the same flower to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena.   Puck mixes up the lovers, toys with Bottom, the leading actor of the "mechanicals" and Titania finds herself hopelessly in love with an ass. Confusion and merriment ensue.

Following most of Shakespeare's original staging conditions this A Midsummer Night's Dream engages its audience.   Leaving the lights on permits delightful interaction between the audience and the energetic eleven cast members.   Doubling roles adds to the farcical proceedings as the many quick costume changes, sometimes within a scene, keeps the pace brisk.   Victoria Depew's costuming clearly defines the characters.   The lovers and mechanicals are in Elizabethan garments (except appropriately Hippolyta the Amazon queen) and the fairies, with a nod to the battle between Oberon and Titania over an Indian boy are garbed in luxurious fabrics evoking an exotic take on the subcontinent.  Director Kathleen Powers uses physical comedy to great effect, yet the star on this stage are her acting ensemble and their crisp delivery of Shakespeare's language.

All of the eleven actors bring their best to this production.  Most of the ensemble plays two roles, some play three and it is clear that they are having a great deal of fun interpreting these wide ranging characters.   Where to begin?  Denise Mahler (Hermia), Jake Mahler(Lysander) and Patrick Earl(Demetrius) are three of the four cast members who do not double.   They portray well the angst and humor of the lovers situation.   Bridget Rue plays both Helena, the First Fairy and Moth.   Her Helena is a comic highlight of the production. She is particularly funny as she desperately tries to maintain Helena's dignity even as she debases herself with Demetrius.  A running gag involving her hat is hilarious.   Daniel Abraham Stevens is regal as Duke Theseus, manipulated well by Stephanie Holladay Earl's Hippolyta.  Eugene Douglas takes delight in Oberon's revenge plot on his fairy queen, and is sweet as the timid Snug.  Ms. Holladay Earl is sensual and fiery as the angry Titania and her love affair with the lowly Bottom is delightful in its absurdity.

Rick Blunt is a clown.   He is one of the most natural interpreters of the clown roles in classical theater.   Bottom the weaver in his hands is the larger than life buffoon that is required for the role.  It was a great decision to not hide his expressive face in a full mask when he is transformed into an ass as to lose that element would have a negative impact on his performance.   Yet, it is not all low comedy that makes this performance so memorable as Mr. Blunt allows brief glimpses of Bottom's gentle side.

Michael Amendola is a mischievous Puck.   Mr. Amendola is accomplished in his physicality and his exhaustive antics play up the  absurdity of Puck's pranks.   Mr. Amendola also portrays well poor Starveling the put upon mechanical who just can't seem to get moonlight correct.  

As for the rest of the ensemble Ronald Peet as Philostrate, Flute and Peaseblossom, Kevin Hauver as Egeus, Peter Quince and Cobweb and Mr. Stevens again as Mustardseed succeed in helping this A Midsummer Night's Dream be a highlight of the Spring 2012 season at the Blackfriar's Playhouse.

William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is being performed through June 16, 2012  in repertory with Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore as part of the Almost Blasphemy Tour and spring 2012 season the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.   For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.

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