If Peter Quince were alive today and living in Arizona, he might well be the artistic director of Southwest Shakespeare Company. Quince is, of course, that amateur entrepreneur of ancient Athens who organized a group of tradesmen to perform "the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe" for the wedding of Theseus, duke of Athens, and his conquered Amazon bride, Hippolyta.
With deliberately coy irony, the part of Quince has been assumed by Kevin Dressler, SSC's managing artistic director in its revival of A Midsummer Night's Dream, currently playing in midsummer temperatures under the stars (and airplanes) at Mesa Amphitheatre.
Dream is among Shakespeare's most accessible plays and therefore among his most produced. In the Valley, this marks the third production of this bucolic comedy in the past year or so, and currently on Broadway, there is a version from the Royal Shakespeare Company. A blend of farce, romance and fantasy, the play is a director's dream, inviting imaginative flights of conceptual innovation.
The contemporary bench mark was probably Peter Brook's gymnastic Dream in 1980, a dazzling white-on-white frolic, performed with high-wire acrobatics. Local audiences may treasure David Vining's 1991 production at Arizona State University, in which the action was credibly transposed to the psychedelic Sixties. Unfortunately, neither Max Reinhardt's 1935 film version (with Mickey Rooney as Puck) nor Peter Hall's 1968 film captured the magic and humor required by the text.
In Phoenix, I enjoyed last year's modest Black Theatre Troupe production directed by Mike Traylor, but I was alone among my critical colleagues in being appalled by Arizona Theatre Company's deconstruction of the piece, which seemed a chaotic rip-off of Cirque du Soleil.
SSC director Leslie Brott has written an admirable program note on the present version describing her four guiding principles: Be funny; tell the story; keep it simple; and, especially, make it quick. The company is mostly successful in realizing those goals. The members speed through the intertwining stories with dispatch; they get many of the intended laughs without undue strain; and they blend the fantasy elements into the other two plot lines so that there is a unified world of the play.
This is a straightforward, even simplistic reading of a play that weaves a web of theatrical magic. As a result, the chief delight is to hear Shakespeare's lyrical poetry rendered with clarity, meaning and purpose. This is a significant achievement, fundamental to an enjoyable encounter with this play.
Visual and emotional stimulation, however, is sorely lacking and that seems a pity, given such a pretty opportunity. Bethanne Humphries' costumes are appropriate, but uninspired. Holly Vesely's set is pragmatic, allowing the mysteries and the humor to emerge, but with minimal magic. The most impressive piece of the set is the gigantic moon that hovers over all the action, sparkling with mischievous ambiance. Two firefighters' poles give actors slippery egress from the upper level, but nothing imaginative develops from their use.
The quartet of lovers, on whom our involvement with the play depends, is unevenly cast. One couple is far more engaging than the other. Billy Gunn and Natalie Messersmith are charming, believable and touching as Lysander and Hermia, while Steve Muterspaugh and Jamey Elise Hood are relatively wooden as Demetrius and Helena. Hood is a particular disappointment in the almost foolproof role of the scorned Helena, rising to only perfunctory levels of performance, when an adroit, sympathetic comedienne is needed.
Bradley P. Jones makes a regal Theseus, accompanied by edgy secret-service men in shades. Especially interesting is Katherine Stewart's Hippolyta, but her performance is undermined by an inferior sound system that renders her delivery largely inaudible.
Dream challenges a director to come up with a concept that allows the audience to believe in fairies, without inviting the smug snickering endemic to our homophobic society. Brott boldly has chosen to present Shakespeare's merry wanderers of the night as recognizable types from a gay bar. Titania, queen of the fairies, is played by Tracy Lynne Hill with the modest mugging of Carol Burnett. Less colorful and less interesting is Christopher M. Williams as a rather prosaic Oberon.
Costumed in skintight translucence, John King as Puck ripples through the role with the pelvic gyrations of a go-go boy. Delightful to watch, King fails only with the heavy-handed delivery of such familiar lines as: "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"
The rest of the fairies mince about harmlessly, in all shapes and sizes, although it is a curious choice that the director has assigned all the male fairies to Titania (except Puck) and all the females to Oberon.
Similarly misguided is the casting of the Rude Mechanicals. The hammy Bottom is played with charm and humor by James Ward, but by casting such a handsome fellow in such a droll role, the director has robbed Titania of the delicious absurdity we are meant to experience when she falls in love with him. Confounding the problem, the costume designer has provider only a pair of hairy ears to suggest Bottom's transformation into an ass, allowing his leading man's magnetism to show through. When Titania is required to recoil in horror ("How mine eyes do loathe his visage now!"), the effect is lame.
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The sexual cross-casting of the Mechanicals with both men and women raises more questions. Why has Brott chosen to cast the elephantine Matt Hill as Flute, who must assume the role of Lady Thisbe in their skit? To be sure, Hill is funny, but why would Peter Quince choose to have a man playing a man playing a woman when in the same group there are women playing men playing men? It is a puzzlement.
Quibbles aside, however, Pyramus and Thisbe is presented in hilarious fashion, in what is one of the funniest scenes ever written. In fact, other productions of Dream fail only when the actors and the director feel they must exaggerate to "make it funny." Happily, this cast has steered clear of that fatal mistake, and so renders Shakespeare's tragical mirth with the full-hearted hilarity it deserves.
Southwest Shakespeare Company is a mixture of enthusiastic amateurs with a smattering of professionals, and because they love their material so much, they have mastered the poetry and style with dedicated ease. A Midsummer Night's Dream seems immune to the hazards of such a mixture, for as Theseus notes: "Never anything can be amiss, when simpleness and duty tender it."
Southwest Shakespeare Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream continues through Saturday, May 4, at Mesa Amphitheatre, Center and University.