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A CurtainUp Review
A Midsummer Night's Dream

Lovers, to bed; 'tis almost fairy time. . . — Theseus
(L to R) Erin Mulgrew as Hermia and Emily Letts as Lysander with Sean Gibson as Demetrius and Patrick Joyce as Helena
Photo credit: John Flak
Let's say you're young, smart, and just not into Shakespeare yet. This is the place for you to get started. Mauckingbird Theatre Company is doing Shakespeare's great comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, "through a queer lens". If you're gay or straight, it doesn't matter, you'll love this production. Even if you're new to Shakespeare, you'll get it despite the Elizabethan-speak. And thank goodness, the little electronics that help you manage your life are right in the middle of it. (Actually, even if you're old, you'll like it.)

Theseus (Benjamin Lovell) and Hippolyta (Melanie Julian), the ancient ones, frame the play. It begins when the Athenian hero anticipates his impending nuptials with his Amazon queen, and it ends with the marriage celebration. In fact, this light and gay play will be resolved with several weddings. That's not to say there won't be angst and comic uproar right up until the end. The denizens of the play are mad with love — gender-bent love, permanent love, and temporary love.

A problem is brought to Theseus's attention: Hermia (a girl) is supposed to marry Demetrius (a boy), but she has fallen in love with Lysander (here, a girl). Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius. A friend, Helena (here, a boy) loves Demetrius. Got it? (These four very fine actors are respectively: Erin Mulgrew, Sean Gibson, Emily Letts, and Patrick Joyce.)

Hermia's unhappy father, Egeus (Nick Anselmo) is the impediment that gets things started. When his daughter won't marry her fiancé, he takes his case to Theseus and demands his legal rights (which come up on a screen). Played self-possessed and courtly by Benjamin Lovell, Theseus upholds the law. Hermia must marry Demetrius. Her alternatives are nunnery or death.

Lysander and Hermia decide to run away to the woods to escape her sentence. Text messages ensue and Helena and Demetrius follow and head for the woods. Helena is not usually a particularly interesting character, but here he is quite captivating as a gay theme twists things around.

Cut to the fairies. (Whenever this word is used it has that double entendre ring.) The fairy world is introduced with rope lights and dramatic music. Oberon and Titania, the resident royalty, are a sight to behold in Lauren Perigard's costumes. Titania (Sean Thompson) is a fascinating, bitchy royal pain in a long black robe and black boots. Oberon (Charles Illingworth IV) is handsome in his black leather-fetish dress and platform boots. Their four attendant fairies, all talented and totally tuned in, do a lively Janet Jackson kind of dance. (They are Richie Sklar, Justina Ercole, Steve Fala, and Eileen McHugh.)

The fairy royals are in a dust up over Titania's Indian changling boy, whom Oberon wants and she won't give over. It's just an excuse, really, for Oberon to exact revenge and get things rolling in terms of the elaborate plot.

He instructs his cute-as-a-button, mischievous sprite, Puck (Brent Knobloch), to cast a spell on Titania with the nectar of a cool looking, lighted flower. The fact that the flower referred to in the play is a pansy doesn't come up, but it would have been an interestingly impertinent note in a queer reading.

Under the flower's spell, Titania will fall hopelessly in love with the first thing she lays eyes on when she awakes. And it is arranged that she will fall in love with a most unsuitable thing. In case you don't know the whole story, I will leave this bit alone.

The flower spell is also cast on the young lovers, but uh-oh!, Puck messes up, which results in the ensuing mixed up, fast-paced action. It's complicated.

Nearby, Peter Quince and his band of mechanicals— all English laborers in a maze of high class Greeks— prepare a show for the big wedding. It is about Pyramus and Thisby, lovers who are kept apart by their parents. In addition to the star-crossed lovers, the little play famously features a wall and a lion. All the actors in the comic troupe do wonderfully solid nerdy performances (Stephanie Cryor, David Quinn, Owen Pelesh, Rebecca Sherman, Will Poost). Well-meaning, good natured Bottom, a beloved Shakespeare character, is among them. Danielle Pinnock, a natural comedienne, is a marvel. Her Bottom is over the top, and the audience loves it. But enough about bottoms and tops. Perigard's costumes for their Pyramus and Thisby play are a hilarious vision that draws extended laughs.

The young lovers, fairies, and comic craftsmen are the play's focus. In that interest, the small framing parts of Theseus and Hippolyta have been pared down. Their connections are underplayed (like their former romantic links with the fairies). Due to the exigencies of time and our predilection to cut to the chase, the two are almost conflated here. And it is Ms. Julian as Hippolyta who, with great poise and a lovely dignity, delivers Theseus's well known discourse near the end.

Just one thing doesn't really work --for some reason the setting is a school. However, other than a logo projected at the beginning (so in touch with today's education branding madness) and plaid uniforms, there is no trace of school to be found. But the unneeded theme quickly fades as the midsummer dream takes over.

Directors Peter Reynolds and Lynne Innerst elicit focused performances from their actors, with an emphasis on clarity and vibrancy. They also handle the slightly difficult ending creatively and sensitively. Shakespeare's resolution has a little problem: The lovers are all abruptly and neatly patched back up. After Hermia's heartthrob has seriously dissed her, for her to just go along with Lysander's flip and sudden unapologetic return never did sit quite right. But here, compensatory action outside the script helps to solve the problem. For Hermia needs to come to terms with the denouement and be won over after her beloved's recent vehement declarations of non-love. Taking the moment to deal with it is a very effective directorial move.

Chris Colucci's clangy, original "funky techno punk" music wraps around this show, and his sound design includes a surprise musical number.

Reynolds and Innerst, who deftly adapted the play, are tuned in to audience interests: We like it all to fit into 1.5 hours. We have little patience for drawn out formalities, and like Shakespeare's own audience, in a comedy we are captivated less by elegance and eloquence than by love's mishaps and madcap action. Add electronic media, and stir. Mauckingbird's production is an airy delight.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Reynolds and Lynne Innerst

Cast: Nick Anselmo, Stephanie Cryor, Justina Ercole, Stephen Fala, Sean Gibson, Sean Thompson, Patrick Joyce, Melanie Julian, Brent Knobloch, Emily Letts, Charles Illingworth, Ben Lovell, Eileen McHugh, Erin Mulgrew, Danielle Pinnock, Owen Pelesh, Will Poost, David Quinn, Rebecca Sherman, Richie Sklar
Set Design: Dan Soule, S. Cory Palmer
Costume Design: Lauren Perigard
Lighting Design: Dom Chacon
Sound Design: Chris Colucci
08/20/10- 09/12/10 Opening 08/28
1 hr 30 mins
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 08/28 performance. Randall Theater at Temple University, where Mauckingbird is in residence.
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