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A Midsummer Night’s Dream — Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre

untitled (76)Color, strings, sparkling light, balloons, and evocative shadows introduce Carmen Khan’s production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre.

Khan’s approach to the classic is reminiscent of Peter Brook’s landmark 1970 rendition of the play, with creativity and physicality being major hallmarks.

Rather than the eerie forest-mimicking whirrs you heard as Brook’s Puck waved a rubber tube, Khan’s Puck, the lithe, delectable, and hoydenish Melissa Dunphy, uses light, stems that unleash sparkles to create mood. Khan also has the balletic Dunphy dance prettily and mischievously in shadow, again presaging her attitude toward Shakespeare’s durable and loveable comedy. We are about to see how untrue the course of love can run, and all that thwarts ease in romance. Dunphy’s antic foreshadows, all pun intended, the merry but commentating take on a variety of lovers’ situations Khan and her ensemble have in store.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is an astute comic study of love. From the beginning you hear how Theseus arranged matrimony with Hippolyta after defeating her in a war. Their immortal fairy counterparts, Oberon and Titania, squabble over custody of an Indian child, and Oberon mocks love by having Titania become obsessively enamored of Bottom, dressed by Puck as an ass. Egeus arrives to ask Theseus, in his role of ruler and judge, to knock statutory sense into his daughter, Hermia, so she’ll marry his choice, Demetrius, instead of hers, Lysander. Egeus asks for, and Theseus grants, death to Hermia if she doesn’t obey. Meanwhile, Helena, another Athens ingénue, waits on the sidelines pining for Demetrius, who spurns her to be granted the woman he prefers, even though Hermia doesn’t want him. Lysander cheekily says to Egeus that he should marry Demetrius if he likes him so much. Even the rude mechanicals’ entertainment, “Pyramus and Thisbe,” harkens back to The Bard’s recently past hit, “Romeo and Juliet,” to depict, if in unconscious parody, how tragically a prevented liaison might end.

Love is the overriding theme, whether genuine, sentimental, lunatic, or poetic, and Khan playfully opts to make amour humorously chaotic, stressing the obstacles, including Puck’s oopses at romantic engineering, the obsessive pursuit of affection, and flaming passion, real or not. Shakespeare writes about the distinction between sincere, authentic love and fleeting, temperamental infatuation. Fickleness and wavering are also part of the mix. Khan makes comic use of all The Bard provides and keeps her lovers in suspended frustration until Oberon takes it upon himself, as deus ex machine, to make sure all is straightened out between Helena and Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander, and even him and Titania. Theseus and Hippolyta are more an example of pragmatic, political love, with Brian Anthony Wilson showing an amiable, almost unctuously conceding attitude towards his intended bride while Eleni Delopoulos relays nothing beyond facially expressed sympathy for Hermia, whose father would rather see her put to death or mewed in a convent before he’d consent to let her marry Lysander.

Khan’s is a lively, happy production that keeps you laughing and smiling as the various groups of characters go through their well-orchestrated paces. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre stage brims with energy and fun. Light, and the illusion it causes, are consistently important as the magical distillations Puck gathers are represented by little beads of illumination that seem to be  tossed deftly between him and Oberon when the latter is priming a lover to direct his or her affections to the person who will most appreciate them.

Khan’s is a director’s production, and a director’s achievement. Aside from Dunphy’s Puck, Michael Gamache as both Egeus and Peter Quince, and John Zak as an irrepressible Bottom, there is no outstanding performance. There are, however, lots of good, solid, engaging turns. Khan’s cast is adept at the physicality and in maintaining the animated spirit of the show. When I say no one is “outstanding” I mean the troupe is uniformly competent and universally entertaining. They are unflagging in their will and talent to create a good time. The four young lovers, besides being attractive, make clear their various positions and can show exasperation, or ecstasy, as much through posture and facial expression as through Shakespeare’s words.. Josh Kachnycz is the strongest performer as Lysander, but all exude youthful vigor and ardent concern about their romantic quest and the roadblocks to prevent it.

The opening is an occasion to frolic and to make mild fun of love. Dunphy not only dances in shadow to Fabio Obispo’s appropriately sprightly tunes, but she adds music with her violin and an unusual instrument composed of metal-looking spikes that bend inward at increasing heights, from three to about eight inches, to form a cone and which is bowed to make scratchy, shrill sounds. It is quite effective and is used by Dunphy’s Puck to punctuate both the mirth, disappointment, and romance of scenes.

Neither Wilson nor Deopoulos draw you into the meat of the play with their early badinage as Theseus and Hippolyta. Wilson sounds a bit formal, and Deopoulous speaks in a toneless, expressionless voice that gives little life to her dialogue or personality to her character. Matters improve greatly when Gamache enters as Egeus. Gamache is clear and firm in his character. His reading have expression and emphasis that has been lacking. He sounds conversational, and his anger and resolve are intact as he argues eloquently for a father’s right under Athenian law to decide his daughter’s mate and, if rebuffed in his decision, to commit his daughter to a convent or to death.

NealBoxGamache gives classical force to the scene while being so stern in his complaint and demand to Theseus, he subtly ekes comedy out of Egeus’s rigidity. His crisp articulation, sounding simultaneously heightened and natural, seems to affect Wilson, who snaps out of an expounding tone to one that is also conversational, allowing for a genuine discussion between this irate father and the governor who must judge his suit. Kachnycz, Arlen Hancock as Demetrius, and Jenna Kuerzi, as the possibly condemned Hermia, show their spunk from the outset. Kachnycz and Hancock will plant their feet on the ground and spar with invective that conveys youth, rivalry, and jealousy. Kachnycz’s Lysander is especially bold considering he is favored by neither Athenian elder, Theseus nor Egeus, runs the risk of being rebuked or punished, and  has only his shared love with Hermia to give him courage and incentive for his cheek. The sequence establishes Lysander and Hermia and the lead couple among the pair that will eventually flee Athens. It is their story we follow and their love that earns our primary concern. Demetrius impetuously chases Hermia and Lysander as they head through a forest to where Athenian authority has no sway, with the spurned Helena, played by Jessica Giannone, on Demetrius’s heels. Helena loves Demetrius and had his assurance of requited love, for which Hermia can vouch, before he turned to Hermia and earned Egeus’s favor.

The lovers, dressed by Vickie Esposito in Moorish designs and primary colors, tend to be as vibrant in personality as they are in garb. Demetrius and Lysander never miss an opportunity to carp at each other and come to near blows. Hermia and Helena, lifelong best friends, are also at odds even though at one point Hermia seeks to soothe Helena by telling her of the plan to escape Athens and informing her that Demetrius will be left behind for Helena to reclaim. Helena, thinking she’ll curry favor with Demetrius, tells him of Hermia’s flight. He rushes into the forest, and Shakespeare’s romp is set in complete motion.

Khan’s players contrast each other. Hancock’s Demetrius looks juvenile and bit spoiled next to Kachnycz’s surlier and more assertive Lysander. Hancock is especially good at showing confusion and taking a “what can happen next?” expression as Demetrius has to make quick decisions about whom to chase, where to rest, and why he feels as he does. He stands, arms at his side, palms out,  in a position of wonder as each unexpected happenstance occurs. Lysander, though tricked out of his true emotions by Puck’s most egregious error, is more direct and purposeful in his actions.

The more striking difference is between Kuerzi’s feisty, frenetic, gesticulating Hermia and Giannone’s cooler, observing Helena who tends to keep her head, if not her temper, even when she’s perplexed or nonplused. Kuerzi continually has Hermia flailing at someone or something, giving intensity to everything that happens, calamitous or inconsequential. Giannone keeps Helena more aloof. She’s willing to chase Demetrius and fight with and for him, but she in more controlled in her expressions and more pointed when she believes she is the butt of joke hatched by the others.

The Athenian forest provides more mayhem than might be caused by lions, tigers, and bears. It holds fairies who enjoy manipulating situations. The fairy king and queen are at odds, and in bedeviling his love, Titania, the fairy king, Oberon, dispatches his minion, Puck, to fetch an herb that makes people fall in love with the living object they see next.

Puck, while declaring mortals fools, mistakenly anoints Lysander’s eyes with the potion meant for Demetrius, so when Lysander awakes, and the first person he spies is Helena, Shakespeare puts permutations of work and starts Lysander vying for Helena’s affections. Anointing of Demetrius, who also sees Helena when he arises, sets confusion afoot, as both men, once enamored of Hermia, now passionately seek Helena, who regards their courting as a mockery conceived bh Hermia. All kinds of calamity breaks loose, and Khan and company keep it all light and entertaining. Best of all is the joy Dunphy’s Puck takes in his mistake. He’s less concerned about fomenting commotion that he is amused that he will get tot witness the mortals being even more foolish.

Fight choreographer Michael Cosenza has many a fracas to stage as the four young lovers run from, wrestle with, and tackle each other. Hermia, slapping at Demetrius the purple curtains that compose Bethanie Wampol’s set, is humorous and well deserved, even though it makes you wonder why the slapping of a face, a punch is the nose, or some light corporal violence is greeted with approval on stage when with today’s Puritan insistence on perfection and pristine behavior, Hermia would be charged with assault or menacing and jailed for her angry, if justified, pummeling of Demetrius, who she thinks has slain Lysander. Emotion and just deserts have no sway in the modern we-must-be-good-and-please-the-allegedly-respectable world that pretends to reasonable justice while failing to take perspective and proportion into consideration. Shakespeare and Khan are obviously more astute about human nature.

Shakespeare has a verbal field day as the lovers protest their various allegiances. Hermia, now an outcast, calls Helena a juggler and a cankerblossom. Numerous jokes make note of Hermia’s height, mentioned as early as the first scene with Theseus and Egeus. “Again little!” becomes a leitmotif of Kuerzi’s dialogue. Helena takes the same kind of umbrage when compared as fair (Hermia) and dark (Helena). Kuerzi and Giannone show proper confusion and authentic contempt as they believe themselves to be bandied about and mocked mercilessly by their one-time friends and lovers. Lysander and Demetrius, transformed by magic, can be viciously scornful to Hermia while being solicitous to Helena in ways she doesn’t understand, or even want, and be combative to each other out of habit as much as out of rivalry for Helena.

Khan and company keep the scenes between the lovers fun. Kachnycz, Kuerzi, Hancock, and Giannone are all attractive, handle Shakespearean verse well enough, and know how to go at each physically, Kachnycz and Hancock having a marvelous wrestling sequence with headlocks, releases, and the full works.

Dunphy is a whirlwind, whether being a contortionist who can twist in and out of several positions, a dancer who uses her litheness to express Puck’s airiness, or as a musician commenting on Shakespeare’s action with her odd spiky instrument. Except for a tendency to rush some lines, Dunphy is perfection, with witty readings and all of the merry zaniness you expect from Puck.

Gamache doubles as Peter Quince and is fussily correct and conciliatory as he rehearses his fellow artists in a entertainment for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding feast. The mechanicals keep their scenes bright in keeping with Khan’s concept. Greg Giovanni is dour and nervous as Starveling. John Schultz gets into Thisbe’s femininity as Flute. Ile Foy expresses great concern as Snug, who plays the lion. Aaron Kirkpatrick is a steadying influence as Snout.

John Zak is goofily pretentious as Bottom, who, though assigned Pyramus, demonstrates how he would play every part in Quince’s script. According to Bottom, his repertoire is boundless. Zak, wearing the most curious of hats,  just jumps in with little provocation to enthusiastically show what he would do as a lover, tyrant, adventurer, or villain as Gamache’s Quince abides each outburst before continuing to describe and assign “Pyramus and Thisbe’s” parts.

The mechanicals convey the problems of putting on a play, not only as they discuss their parts and blocking but in their concern for whether Hippolyta and other ladies will be frightened by their authentic portrayals, necessitating them to write a prologue to allay fear as well as the chance they may have their heads chopped off if they offend.. Khan gives the rehearsal scenes a chance to breathe, so they remain as entertaining and insightful as the lovers’ sequences. She also gives “Pyramus and Thisbe” its full playing time, which proves to be quite rewarding. Wilson, as Theseus, must agree because his guffaws are heard throughout the mechanicals’ performance. Dunphy once more excels as Philostrate, Theseus’s major domo, who makes faces and looks to be in wonder as Philostrate explains Quince’s play and is amazed it is chosen to be seen.

Zak handles Bottom’s transition to an ass with aplomb. He truly believes his friends are playing a jest on him when they flee after seeing him. Yet he brays with delight when Titania, affected by Puck’s potion, dotes on him and showers him with courtly treatment he’d never know as an Athenian tradesman.. Zak is flattered by Titania’s attention but also regards it as his due. Though foolish in general, Zak’s Bottom regards himself as being a consummate actor and competent in all things becoming a man, from weaving, his trade, to wooing. His Bottom relaxes and easily accepts all that Titania offers. He considers it his due and is more impressed with the conquest he’s made than amazed or curious about what is happening and how it came to be. Bottom luxuriating in his good luck, and braying his approval of his situation, is quite funny and entertaining.

Khan’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a great success, proceeding with amusement, loaded with liveliness and color, and ending with the  distribution of giant balloons and a rousing Bollywood dance routine to celebrate the weddings of Helena and Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander, and Theseus and Hippolyta. Oberon and Titania also reconcile, so all romance is in fine shape by the time Puck bids us adieu.

Some beautiful and creative aspects of Khan’s production would not have been possible without the excellent lighting design by Jerold Forsyth. Wampol’s design with its Moorish arches, pastel look, and vivid violet curtains that serve as acrobatic tools for Puck and as weapons for Hermia, is attractive and nicely utilitarian.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs through Sunday, May 17, at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $35 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-496-8001 or by visiting www.phillyshakespeare.org.

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