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Theater Review: “Midsummer” in the Afternoon: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

One of Shakespeare’s most popular and accessible plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is certainly an ideal choice for The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, the woodsy amphitheatre nestled into a comfortable niche right off Topanga Canyon Boulevard.  Midsummer, despite its seemingly simple narrative, clearly divided triptych of interlocking stories, and great low-ball comedy, is a trickier play to bring to life than most theatre practitioners and audiences give it credit for.  Despite a setting tailor-made for Shakespeare’s comedy of love, lust, and amateur theatrics, this production, despite some charming and energetic performances, leaves much to be desired.

The biggest overall problem is lack of a consistent and coherent directorial hand.  For the most part, a hallmark of good directing is when the director’s hand is more or less invisible to the audience.  Any play should simply unfold without the audience feeling manipulated, even in highly stylized productions, but director Melora Marshall failed to clearly differentiate the internal styles demanded by the three stories within the play, and the actors’ performances suffered as a result.  Also, the physical production seemed muddled, and some of the directorial choices, quite frankly, made no sense.  For instance, why, upon entering the amphitheatre, was the audience exposed to pre-recorded Elizabethan music?  Yes, that’s when Shakespeare lived and worked, but Midsummer takes place in and around Athens, Greece!  (Elizabethan Athens, Greece?  I don’t think so.) In keeping with this strangely inappropriate ode to Elizabethan culture, a production that had the actors often running around like banshees and screaming their heads off (to create “energy” and “atmosphere,” don’t you know) ended with a formal Elizabethan dance.  Huh?  A little Zorba action, maybe?  A lyre, perhaps?

The production’s constant need to create ambiance was both obvious and unnecessary, especially given the venue (yes, we get it, we’re in the frikkin’ woods already).  The audience was constantly subjected to actors, both on-stage and off, variously cooing, trilling, and providing other woodsy and sprite-like sounds, all of which just felt a bit silly.  Elizabeth Tobias as the mischievous Puck, one of Shakespeare’s most charming creations, chirped and trilled her head off, leading this reviewer to look around for a can of Raid.  Further, the undeniably adorable middle school kids enlisted to play the faeries and sprites, in addition to providing the aforementioned soundtrack, continually flapped their arms in a flowing, wing-like manner; when running across the stage they gave the collective impression of a gaggle of lithe, graceful, yet tragically flightless, birds.

This production also veered away from exploring the more interesting psychological themes in the play.  The forest, in most of Shakespeare’s plays, is a place for love and passion.  Midsummer offers some tantalizing possibilities on these themes: what happens (in this case, via the device of magic), when the strictures of social acceptability and personal “morality” are lifted, and one is allowed to freely follow one’s sensual appetites, wherever they may lead?  Midsummer is, or should be, a very sexy play, not in an exploitative or cheap way, but in a manner that explores the nature of passion, and the differences between the male and female sexual appetite.  And these things, as functions of the foibles of human nature, are also very very funny, and thus can be illuminated to the audience within the framework of farce, a style demanded by much of Midsummer. Perhaps by choice, this production seemed to studiously avoid addressing these deeper possibilities.

The actors, for the most part, were clearly understood, but while some did a fine job using the language as a springboard to a fine performance (Meredith W. Sweeney’s energetic, endearing, and believable Hermia first and foremost), others simply declaimed without a sense of true connection to their fellow actors, or an attachment to the intentions that Shakespeare clearly provides.  The most fetching and pulchritudinous Willow Geer, as the oft-befuddled Helena, has charm and sensuality to burn, yet at times her voice, when climbing into the upper register, became a kind of crutch and annoying affectation that an actress of her talent has no need of.  The mechanicals, led by Thad Geer as the scene-stealing Bottom, were appropriately amusing and nicely individualized, although again, Ms. Marshall might have paid more mind to the behavioral differences between those characters when acting or rehearsing the play-within-the-play, versus their interactions with each other.

There are clearly a bunch of talented folks up at the Will Geer, and their dedication to Shakespeare and other forms of classical theatre over the past 25 years is important, admirable, and worthy of community support.  Let’s hope that the rest of the season (MacBeth, As You Like It, Sheridan’s Restoration Comedy The School For Scandal and Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical drama Long Day’s Journey Into Night) will rise to a higher level of production.

A final thought: theater, as we all know, is an illusion, one created by a compact between the audience and performers.  As Stanislavsky once remarked, the theatergoers’ experience begins the moment they enter the theatre.  Thus, this reviewer found it disturbing and unprofessional to see the actors warming up, reviewing lines, etc., in full view of the audience as they entered, and even more disturbing to see actors during intermission checking messages on their cell phones. 

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