Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Al Fresco “Midsummer Night’s Dream: light, fun, contemporary, if a bit uneven
Enter the Independent Shakespeare Company, and their Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival. There a young, diverse and enthusiastic company brings this silly, wonderful play to life in a particularly accessible way. The vision is large, the al fresco setting clever, and though the performances are a bit variable, the net result ranges from pleasant to endearing.
The convoluted tale begins as Thesius, Duke of Athens prepares to marry Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons.
As preparation for these festivities continue, Hermia’s father applies to the Duke to force her to marry the man he has chosen – Demetrius – instead of Lysander, the man she loves. Hermia’s dear friend Helena was Demetrius’ fiancé until this new arrangement was proposed, and still loves him. Meanwhile, Titania, Queen of the Fairies and Oberan, their king, are having a row over a changeling child she has and he wants. Add to this a group of rough working men who gather to try to put on a play to entertain Thesius and Hippolyta at their nuptials.
All these folk at one point or another end up in the same forest outside Athens, and their often ridiculous stories soon intertwine. This is the meat of the play. Indeed, perhaps the hardest to make interesting is the connection between Theseus (Evan Lewis Smith and Hippolyta (Aisha Kabia), who do not galavant in the forest, but here the tensions between the two become interesting from the outset, setting a tone for the entire production.When the two performers transition into playing the royalty of Fairyland, it just gets better and better.
Kelvin Morales gives Oberon’s mischievous helper Puck a edgy, wicked streak which works well. Katie Powers Faulk makes Hermia more empowered than sometimes, while Jose Acain’s Demetrius has the stolid feel of the overly entitled. Xavi Moreno emotes like mad as Lysander, though one wishes he didn’t sound whiney all the time, and Julia Aks handles the discarded Helena’s various moments of angst with understanding, but – as several of the players do – sometimes gets caught up in the rhythm of the Shakespearean poetry so much that it interferes some with its conversational intent.
Indeed, this is the biggest issue with this production: delivery of lines is uneven. The trick of playing Shakespeare in the modern age is to speak the Bard’s poetry as if it was normal speech and not iambic pentameter. Some of the cast do this very well, while others get caught in a sing-song way of speaking which distracts one from the story or the comedy at hand.
Still, as a whole it works. The “rustics” are particularly effective, and comparatively original. William Elsman gives Peter Quince, the play-within-a-play’s supposed director, an earnest ineffectiveness which works well. In an interesting twist Bukola Ogunmola creates a female Flute, the bellows mender – allowing a woman to play a woman (Thisbe) in the final play. Her portrait may remove one comic element of the original, but is a wonder of detachment which plays well to the comedy.
Daniel Jimenez and Patrick Batiste make the two lesser players among the rustics, Starveling and Snout, original and engaging, and Richard Azurdia’s shy Snug becomes a unique and truly silly lion, all but stealing some of the play performance scenes. David Melville’s turn as Nick Bottom, transformed by Puck as a joke, forever unflappable and self absorbed, proves funny. Though some of the best ridiculous lines get a bit stepped on, his “death scene” meets all expectations.
Director/ISC Artistic Director Melissa Chalsma knows how to use the specific performance space – site of the old Griffith Park Zoo – to great effect, moving her performers in and around the blankets and beach chairs of the audience, and interacting with them in specific and effective ways. The occasional injection of modernisms into the standard script enhances rather than distracting from the play itself.
The minimalist set of Caitlin Lainoff provides all variations of entrance and exit spaces, and keeps the action close to those watching in ways which aid the interaction. Ruoxuan Li’s costumes combine fantasy, contemporary and period in interesting ways, though that donkey head needs a greater anchor – one becomes anxious for fear it will fall off.
Yet, taken as a whole, this “Midsummer” is charming, airy, and a great way to spend an evening. This is the start of ISC’s 15th season, and the first of two productions in Griffith Park. Bring your blanket, or your low folding chair, and come join the fun. You will leave with a smile. This production plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”.
What: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” When: through September 2, 7 p.m. every Wednesday to Sunday through July 22, August 5, 8, 12, 16, 18, 22, 26 and 31, September 2 Where: The Old Zoo in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. How Much: Free. Info: (818) 710-6306 or www.iscla.org