A Dark Night
Technical weak spots only thing tripping up this Shakespeare comedy
Yes, those do look like real trees--a forest of them, in fact, sprouting leaves with vines snaking around their trunks. The large ensemble and production crew behind this student presentation of Shakespeare's durable comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream have certainly sunk a wealth of creative energy into the production's audio/visual presentation. The costumes are fantastic, the lighting choices dramatic. The music compliments the play's many moods. And the set is a stunning jolt of magical imagination. If the whole thing only kinda/sorta flowed March 24, chalk it up to opening night. And while opening night might be an unfair time to consider a production's overall smoothness, the cast and crew shouldn't fret: with some very minor adjustments, this Midsummer could really sing.
Rivals of the West Theatre Company is the MICA student-run production ensemble that started in 2009 and grew out of the class "The Play's the Thing," taught by Christopher Shipley, chair of the Language, Literature, and Culture department. The class, 50-60 students strong, commits to the total visualization and realization of a production, pooling their diverse artistic strengths together for a common goal. It's a wily collaborative effort, and an interesting twist in the art school's offerings: MICA live-theater experiences have typically been more performance based, interactive/body outgrowths of the traditional disciplines. That Rivals exists at all is a bit of a circuitous coup: very right-now young visual minds taking on the sort of traditional theater that has littered Broadway and community stages for generations. The class debuted with Hair last year, and in Midsummer Rivals takes on another woolly enterprise.
And an ornery, marathon task at that. With a running time that teeters close to three hours, a 21-member cast, and three layers of interlocking plots, Midsummer is a complicated production and one of Shakespeare's more familiar comedies. That its story is Dynasty knotted with romantic shenanigans perhaps contributes to its timelessness. Once upon a time in ancient Athens, Hermia (Courtney Ay) is in love with Lysander (Giovanni Flores), but her father Egeus (Way Spurr-Chen) has already chosen her husband in Demetrius (Phillip Jenkins). Demetrius loves Hermia, who has no interest in him, but Helena (Meghan Morrison) is madly in love with Demetrius, who spurns her. Hermia and Lysander decide to elope and head off into the woods, and Helena hopes to win Demetrius' affection by telling him of this plan, and all four end up heading into the forest.
Meanwhile, a band of rude mechanicals is working on a play about Pyramus and Thisbe to be performed at the wedding celebration of Theseus (John Jennette) and Hippolyta (Emi Macleod). The vainglorious Bottom (Dellonese Isaac) volunteers to play the handsome Pyramus--and Thisbe and the lion; he just can't shut up--and the entire band heads into the woods to rehearse.
The woods, though, is the land of the faeries, where their king Oberon (Bobby English) and his queen Titania (Stephanie McKee) are having a row. So Oberon has the trickster Puck (Christina Howland) put one over on Titania, applying the juice of a magic flower to her sleeping eyelids, which causes her to fall in love with the first person she sees when she wakes. The magic flower also gets applied to Lysander and Demetrius, causing both to fall in love with Helena and out of love with Hermia. And then Puck, impish lout that he is, decides to turn Bottom into a literal ass. Yes, Midsummer is all hell breaking loose, Shakespeare style.
It's also a long-winded setup, and it starts to feel so during this opening night. The set is impressive: a series of removable walls convey the Athens-set scenes, but the majority of Midsummer takes place in the woods. And the company has created a moveable forest of big trunk, sky-reaching trees, shrubbery, cozy pockets in a thistle, and an organic-looking forest floor. It's gorgeous, as totally realized as anything you'll see. It's also a monolithic beast: set changes start to feel interminable, as the wheel-mounted trees don't move that easily. The real faeries making magic happen here are the stagehands who have to create a handful of different forest setups.
Worse, the night lighting didn't do the production any favors. Expectedly, it's a combination of low-level white lights and a series of blue gels, but the overall effect leaves large expanses of the stage visibility dead zones. Not being able to see a performer's eyes can produce an interesting effect. Not being able to see faces at all makes you feel like you're merely listening to a reading.
Luckily, Midsummer has a save built-in to its latter third, when the rude mechanicals put on their preposterous production, and where the game Isaac steals this show with her overzealous Bottom. Overacting an amateur actor who has an inflated sense of his skill and self-worth is pretty much the ideal way to play Bottom, and Isaac chews through scenery with an absurd glee. You might not have as mirthfully enjoyed a death scene since Paul Reubens took about five minutes to kick the bucket toward the end of 1992's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A hoot.
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