An Enchanted Midsummer Evening with Shore Shakespeare

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With its production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shore Shakespeare brings one of the bard’s most fanciful comedies to the stage.

Nominally set in and around Athens during the golden age of Greek culture, the play quickly expands its classical setting to bring in a group of English tradespeople – and then shifts gears yet again to the magical world of elves and fairies. And just to make sure nobody leaves the theater without something to remember, the play includes a love story, a series of magical enchantments, songs, dances, and a play within the play. Shakespeare was clearly having fun when he concocted this one – and the Shore Shakespeare production makes sure that comes across to the audience.

This is Christian Rogers’ debut as a director, and he has done a fine job of bringing the play to life. One of the founders of Shore Shakespeare, Rogers has played major roles in a number of the company’s productions, including MacDuff in last year’s “MacBeth,” Rogers said after the Sunday performance at Adkins Arboretum that he wished he could be on stage instead of watching from the sound booth. But he shows real talent as a director, and while it would be a pity to lose him completely as an actor, the impact of this production makes one hope that he will take the opportunity to direct again not too far down the road.

There are essentially three plot lines in the play. The first involves a love story in the Athenian aristocracy. Lysander and Hermia love one another and wish to marry; but Demetrius also loves Hermia, and wishes to marry her – and her father favors Demetrius’ case. Meanwhile, Helena, who loves Demetrius, is out in the cold. And by Athenian law, Hermia must obey her father or forever renounce marriage – or be put to death. Lysander and Hermia take matters in their own hands and flee for a remote village, where they plan to marry – and hope the law will not reach them.

Meanwhile, in that same village, a group of tradesmen is planning to put on a play in hopes of winning a prize. The theme is the love story “Pyramus and Thisbe,” and the incongruity of the casting and the amateur actors’ attempts to adjust the plot so as not to frighten ladies in the audience make up much of the fun of this subplot.

The third plot brings in Oberon, king of the faeries, who is arguing with his queen Titania. To get his wishes, Oberon sends his servant Puck to find a magical flower that will make his queen fall in love with the first thing she sees upon awakening, hoping to use the spell to get her to accede to his wishes.

Of course all three groups end up in the same section of the forest, where the mingling of mortals with magic generates much confusion and many laughs. But we don’t need to summarize the whole plot – everybody read the play in high school, right?

Rogers has assembled his cast from among the regulars at Shore Shakespeare, and there’s not a weak performance among them. At the center of the play are the four lovers.

Lovers face off in the enchanted forest in Shore Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Troy Strootman plays Lysander, and Robbie Spray is Demetrius; Heather Oland takes the role of Helena and Christine Kinlock that of Hermia. All four have numerous credits in local theater, though Oland and Strootman are making their first appearances with Shore Shakespeare. All carry their parts well, running the gamut of emotions from besotted love to jealous fury. Bravo to each! The lovers’ fight scene near the end is especially well-played and well=choreographed, with Helena jumping on Lysander’s back and the two men circling each other angrily.

The Athenian nobles and the faery royalty are played by two actors: Brian McGonigle takes the roles of Oberon and of Theseus, Duke of Athens, while Colleen Minahan plays Titania and Hippolyta, Theseus’s bride. Since the characters are never onstage at the same time, this works – and it gives an interesting parallelism to the two courts. And, since Oberon and Titania have far more active parts in the play, it gives them something interesting to do while making sure there are good actors in the secondary roles. Greg Minahan also takes two parts, as Hermia’s father Egeus and as Peter Quince, leader of the troupe of  tradesmen/actors. He distinguishes the two characters nicely – in fact, he’s so good that some audience members might not realize the same actor is playing both.

One of the key roles in the play is Puck, the mischievous faery who does Oberon’s bidding. Avra Sullivan, one of the founders of Shore Shakespeare, is a delight in the role – darting around the stage, mugging, pantomiming magical spells, and on the whole giving a memorable performance. Hard to believe this is the same actor who played Lady MacBeth so effectively last summer! Sullivan trained as a Shakespearean actor, and it has shown clearly with every role she has played with the company.

Bottom (Patrick Fee) and Puck (Avra Sullivan)

The other prime comic role in the play is Bottom the weaver, played broadly by Patrick Fee, another fixture in the Shore theatrical community. Bottom is one of Shakespeare’s most iconic comic characters, the country bumpkin who finds himself in exalted company and proceeds to muddle through. Fee does the character proud – one of his best performances.

The other rustic characters are played equally broadly, with good comic effect. They include Sarah Gorman, Josh Hansen, and Jane and John Tereby. Hansen, a ninth-grader at Wye River Upper School, has already accumulated several theater credits, including two roles in last year’s Shore Shakespeare “MacBeth.” He is appropriately amusing as Flute the bellows-mender, cast as Thisbe, the female lead in the artisans’ play, reciting his lines in a high, squeaky “female” voice. John Tereby gets great fun out of being cast as a wall that separates the lovers; and Gorman, wearing an orange mop, does a nice comic turn as the roaring lion in the tradesmen’s play – a wonderful send-up of amateur theater that rings as true today as it must have in Shakespeare’s time.

The villagers rehearse their play , checking to see if the moon will be full on the night of the performance.  It will.  From left, Greg Minahan, Jane Tereby, Josh Hansen and John Tereby

Lindsey Hammer, making her Shore Shakespeare debut, plays a faery who assists Puck in some of his magical exploits. Her dancing and graceful leaps add greatly to the choreography.

With the performances all taking place outdoors, the sets are minimal. There is effective use of colorful movable trees in some of the forest scenes, especially when the lovers are running through the wood at night, unable to find one another because of Puck’s enchantments. A backdrop with columns gives the general impression of Athens, and a few strategically placed stumps give the actors a chance to rise above the scene for a moment. That’s about it – but it’s effective, and likely true to the way the play would have been staged in many productions in Shakespeare’s era.

The costumes are visually attractive and evoke both the era and the distinct groups of characters. It’s amusing to see the rustics dressed in what could be working-class uniforms – with items such as straw hats, suspenders, vests –  from almost any historical era from the 1600s to today.  It nicely distinguishes them from both the noble Athenians and the flamboyant Faery court, while making a sly nod to the fact that the characters might as well be English country folk of Shakespeare’s time. Kudos to Barbi Bedell and Marcia Gilliam for their costume work.

One of my few quibbles with the production was the decision to represent Puck’s transformation of Bottom’s head into that of a donkey by simply adding donkey’s ears to his straw hat. Granted, a more traditional papier-mache donkey’s head could cause problems for the actor in seeing and moving, as well as being uncomfortable if the temperature climbs too high – as it can in June. But with nothing more than the ears on his hat, the other actors’ horrified reaction to Bottom’s transformation seems less believable. Something along the lines of a “Groucho” nose or a donkey’s tail would add humor and help the audience see the magic come alive.

A nice touch is the background music, which mingles Felix Mendelssohn’s score for the play with more modern pieces, including selections by Gounod, Stravinsky, Ravel and Prokofiev – plus some original music by Greg Minahan. The music for the rustics’ final exuberant dance, choreographed by Minahan, is especially appropriate – it’s a nice bit of fun I won’t give away here.

For that matter, the whole production is fun. The actors are clearly enjoying themselves, and it’s contagious. Be sure to see it when it comes to your part of the Shore — and bring the whole family. You couldn’t ask for a better way to spend a summer evening.

Shore Shakespeare will be presenting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” this coming Friday and Saturday, June 9 and 10, at Oxford Community Center, and Sunday, June 11 at Idlewild Park in Easton. The next weekend, the production moves to Long Wharf Park in Cambridge for one performance, Friday, June 16. Saturday and Sunday, June 17 and 18, Shore Shakespeare will be on Cray House Lawn in Stevensville. The summer run closes with two performances in Chestertown’s Wilmer Park, Friday and Sunday, June 23 and 25.
Admission to all performances is free; audience members should bring lawn chairs or blankets to sit on. Performances are at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. For more information, visit shoreshakespeare.com.

Photos by Jane Jewell

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