Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Midsummer Night's Dream

The Department of Theatre and Dance's production of Shakeseare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which opened May 22 on the university's main stage, is loud and raucous and energetic. Even before the action officially begins, fairies appear, frolicking on the open stage. They give a hint of the fun and wimsey which will follow in Shakespeare's dreamlike venture into the world of magic.

The play tells several stories, each of which occurs during a single summer night in a magical forest outside Athens, in which fairies play pranks on lovesick mortals, earnest youths endure comical romantic confusion, and a group of mechanics attempts to rehearse a play in secret.

Directed by Peter Lichtenfels, Granada Artist-in-Residence (whose last outing at UCD was the controversial "Romeo and Juliet"), this production seems to be set in no specific time or location, as modern dress mixes with more traditional garb, but all somehow blending together to produce the fabric of the magical world in which all the characters interact.

Ammar Mahmood and Christine Lowery, as Thesius (the Duke of Athens) and Hippolita direct the events of the evening, with their request to Philostrate (Simon Zenon) to arrange entertainment for their upcoming nuptials.

Plans are interrupted by the arrival of Egeus (Kevin B. Lee), a nobleman asking for help in forcing his daughter Hermia (Cooky Nguyen) to marry Demetrius (Drew Hirshfield), the husband of his choosing, though she is in love with Lysander (Ryan Perkins-Gangnes). To further complicate things, Hermia's friend Helena (Shahnaz Shroff) is in love with Demetrius--setting the stage for all of the twists and turns which develop over the course of the story.

Nguyen was last seen in in a minor role in last year's undergraduate festival and stood out for making the most of a small bit. The promise she showed in that production has more than been fulfilled in "Midsummer Night's Dream." She is a delight to watch, as is Perkins-Gangnes, who also was notable for his small role in the undergraduate festival.

Hirshfield turns in another bravura performance as Demetrius.

Hermia and Lysander flee Athens into the woods, intending to be married at the home of his aunt. They are followed by Demetrius, determined to win his bride's hand, and Helena, determined to win Demetrius'.

D. Martyn Bookwalter has designed an abstract sort of forest, with cloth-covered wood frames, painted to give the hint of leaves. They provide a good hiding place for fairies or would-be suitors. A large moon hangs in the sky and moves about during the various scenes, presumably to indicate various time periods, though it is so subtle that it is difficult to pick up what each moon position means. However, the lighting design by Darrell F. Wynn makes for lovely moon reflections.

The mechanics are rehearsing in the woods, under the direction of Peter Quince, a delightful interpretation by Chris Allison. His four actors are Nick Bottom (Phillip Tarver), Francis Flute (Joel Rentner), Robin Starvelling (Erica Filanc) and Tom Snout (Chelsea Kashin). Tarver is outstanding as Bottom, who is full of advice and self-confidence but frequently makes silly mistakes and misuses language. The humor of his role is accentuated by sound designers Leslie Rae Smith and Y.C. Sumnicht, who see to it that he clanks when he walks.

Sound is not always entirely pleasing in this production, and some seems to be unnecessarily ear-splitting. There is, for example, a thunder and tempest caused by an argument between Oberon, the king of the fairies (Mischa Random Pollack) and his queen Titania (Linda Noveroske Rentner).

No production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" would be effective without a solid Robin Goodfellow ("Puck"), Oberon's jester, a mischevious fairy who delights in playing pranks on mortals. Sam Tanng is just what the doctor ordered. He is lythe and impish and, clothed from head to toe in red (including body make up, it's difficult to take your eyes off of him when he is on stage.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a delicious piece of merriment, and a nice diversion on a warm summer's evening. Take the night off and go romping in a magical forest with a bunch of fairies.

Saturday, May 25, 2002

Taming of the Shrew

Overheard in the audience in the Pence Gallery amphitheater at the conclusion of Acme Theatre's opening night of William Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" -- "that was great fun--and I _hate_ Shakespeare."

It's hard to find anything to hate, or even mildly dislike about this lively production of one of Shakespeare's best known comedies. Director Dave Burmester explains that he has always had difficulty with this politically incorrect (though not for Shakespeare's time) story of a woman's spirit being tamed so that she can learn to become a good wife.

To get around the inevitable raised eyebrows from a more enlightened era, Burmester has taken his characters in a different direction. As he puts it, "It was important to show that Kate was not the only character to undergo a major change. To say more here, however, might spoil some of the fun."

Fun it definitely is. Taking inspiration from William Ball's staging of this comedy at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre in 1975, Burmester has created a version of "Taming of the Shrew" which is right out of commedia dell'arte, with supporting players watching the action on stage from scaffolding, wearing traditional masks and providing sound effects for the action on stage with drum, slide-whistle, and other noise makers.

Imagine The Three Stooges do Shakespeare.

This is an extremely physical--and highly choreographed production. Pratfalls, fanny paddles, head bonks, and other comic rhythms of slapstick, each with the accompanying sound effect make for non-stop entertainment.

What makes this production work are the talented actors. There aren't enough adjectives for the outstanding performance by Chris Schmidt as Petruchio, a "gentleman of Verona," who has come to Padua to "wive and thrive." He's looking for a wife with a big dowry and is not put off by the rumors of the quick temper of Katherine. Schmidt's performance is electric.

Jill Winternitz as Katherine is equally outstanding. She fights, she yells, she pouts and in the end she gives in (or does she?).

Rebecca Rukeyeser plays Baptista, Katherine's mother (the role is generally that of Katherine's father, but the gender of the parent seems to matter little). Rukeyeser has the most expressive face and did some of the best mugging of the night. She also gives a good solid performance to the role.

Shakti Howeth is "the lovely Bianca," Kate's younger, more desirable sister, with the face of an angel and a gentle disposition to match. Bianca is sought after by all the men in Padua, but cannot marry until a match is found for her older sister.

Steven Schmidt and Nick Herbert are Lucentio and Tranio, respectively. Lucentio is in love with Bianca and seeks assistance from his servant Tranio in his plan to win her hand. Schmidt and Herbert are very funny in their roles.

As Petrucio's servant, Grumio, Jake Stoebel handles falling forwards or backwards like a pro.

Other strong performances are turned in by James Henderson (Gremio), Eric Delacorte (Hortensio), and Martin Dubcovsky (Biondello). In smaller multi roles are Caleigh Drane, Eric Brattain-Morrin, Katherine Moreno, Bryna Dunnells and Katie German.

Special kudos to choreographer Crystal White for her delightful dances and dancers Laurel Cohen, Jean Marsh, Caleigh Drane, Katherine Moreno, Katie German, and White herself who bring them to life delightfully.

As always, the performance at The Pence Gallery suffers from uncomfortable seating (it is suggested that audience members bring their own chairs) and occasional difficulty in hearing dialog when an actor rushes his or her lines, as well as the unstaged background noises, but these are conditions which the Acme faithful have come to expect and accept as part of the fun of this free outdoor performance.

"The Taming of the Shrew" marks Acme's 20th performance on the Pence stage, a tradition which was begun as a thank you to the community for its financial support of the fledgling company. But a shadow hangs over the future of this Davis tradition. Current plans for a rebuilt Pence Gallery appear to compromise the tiny core area open space. Pence Gallery officials are unable to say exactly what form a new amphitheater might take other than to say it will be different.

However, plans suggest that the park area would be much smaller, too small, seemingly, to house a stage big enough and a seating area extensive enough to accommodate a full-scale theatrical production, even one as small in scope as Acme's annual Shakespeare offering.

It would be a tremendous loss to a community which has enthusiastically supported and enjoyed the performances of Acme and other theatre companies over the years. It is hoped that some sort of compromise can be worked out so that the Pence can have its expansion and the community will still be able to enjoy these free summer entertainments.

This may be the last chance to see Acme at the Pence Gallery amphitheater. There are performances remaining on the 25th, 26th and 27th. If you've never seen Acme in action, don't miss this gem of a production.