A Midsummer Night’s Dream by The City Theater, directed by Lindsay McKenna, Austin, Texas. July 9, 2016.
Reviewed by Michael Saenger
Supposedly, Yogi Berra once turned down an invitation to a particular restaurant, saying, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Something similar could be said about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is probably the most frequently performed Shakespeare play. Like the proverbial restaurant Berra wanted to avoid, Midsummer has become an anodyne victim of its own success. It offers just enough adolescent rebellion and comic sexuality to be transformed into a safely sweet version of itself. By now, there is a pattern for performing almost every scene in this comedy, and it often functions as the easiest way to fill a Shakespearean theater. All you need is a donkey head and a lot of fabric.
The City Theater in Austin, on the whole, avoided the clichés that clutter performances of this play. Director Lindsay McKenna associated this production with a vaguely 1920’s era carnival, and she quite cleverly uses cast members to pull audience members into the show well before it starts. I arrived early, and in the lobby to the theater, one actor was telling fortunes and another was performing tap dance moves on demand. Inside the theater, Levi Gore was already in character as Bottom, with Mike DiChello as Snout; the two were amiably working the crowd, complimenting the women and insulting the men. At the very least, these moves helped to ensure the crowd’s positive response to the play—it’s hard to dislike people who look you in the eye—but the environment also slyly framed the magic of the play not as a mythical realm of immortals, but rather as the emotional risk of performance. Everyone is onstage in a carnival, and half the reason people don’t go to a fortune teller is the fear that they will hear the truth. The audience stepped out of their comfort zone, and as do the Athenians in the play—it was a shared journey to a kind of circus atmosphere, with a lazily uneven back curtain and a feeling that anyone could dance or sing at any time.
Like a love affair in a carnival world, the amours of these characters seemed both irresistible and short-lived. A muscle-bound Jason Graf commanded the faerie world as Oberon, often looking like Gerard Butler in 300, and Mario Ramirez perfectly captured the naively ridiculous pronouncements of love that Lysander makes—he is always at warp speed, emotionally. The sensitive hand of the director allowed each character to explore a different point of view—and that meant that Chelsea Beth as Hermia felt genuinely hurt by her fickle lover, and Amber Wilson as Flute (a bearded lady, of course) was right to be angry at the wisecracking Theseus, played by J. Kevin Smith. Some actors might have benefited from a stronger hand—a few were making faces, or kissing other characters, in ways that did not seem to make sense. There was, however, a consistent ring of truth to the actors’ delivery of the lines; they clearly understood them and cared about the fabric of the speeches. The casting choices felt organic, so much so that the most daring choice was to make Puck a crafty middle-aged man, played by Marc Balester. He was one of the actors who mixed with the audience before the play, but he was so chameleon-like as to be well-nigh invisible. He swept the floor both inside and outside the theater, and it was only if one looked quite carefully that one could see that he was not sweeping anything into anything. In the performance itself, it was a breath of fresh air to hear him deliver his part with understated amusement and worldly ennui. We need more Pucks like that.
Not all the characters were so modest. Levi Gore was warm and bright-eyed as Bottom, and Lizabeth Waters was a vividly dramatic Helena. One of the oddities of the play is that Oberon punishes Titania by making her fall in love with Bottom. That’s odd because there doesn’t seem to be anything painful about her experience. In this performance, Heather Bullard (who has a smile reminiscent of Cynthia Nixon) was iridescent as Titania, delivering her introductory speech on seasonal disruption with utter confidence and clarity. She may not have been satisfied—Bottom would rather put his lips to hay than to her—but Bullard reveled in the joy of desire for its own sake. Such is the brightness of this performance overall, a kind of celebration of a rising tide of yearning and its dénouement. Puck closed with an apologetic epilogue, but though some of the characters felt disappointed, the audience certainly did not.