Friday, June 17, 2016

EclecticPond's production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' wishes boisterously on the moon

June being the month of marriages (including my own, celebrating its 44th anniversary today), "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a timely, multi-tiered wedding cake — layered sweetly with four circumscribed worlds in one huge confection. It opens tonight in an EclecticPond production at IndyFringe's Basile Theatre.

Seen at a media preview Thursday evening, the show brims with energy, hardly a line delivered plainly, with enough action and roaring to banish in any audience the drowsiness that periodically overcomes several characters. Zack Neiditch directs what he says in a program note is his favorite Shakespeare play.

His fondness animates the full-throttle cast, who are largely clad according to a beach-party updating that makes the pursuing and cavorting look all the freer. Period recorded music, roughly contemporaneous with pop songs of the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello era, is exuberantly danced to at several points. Perhaps the silly complexities of "Beach Blanket Bingo" are a distant inspiration for the director's concept.

The richness of nature imagery in the comedy, held aloft minutely in the fairy world, is visually reinforced by Kate Duffy Sim's costume design. The sole set piece is a gauzy full moon, projected on the south wall, which  carries the double reminder that "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is, of course, about night and dreaming. No one ever dreamed on the sun, after all.

"MND"'s other worlds  — besides the fairyland over which Oberon and Titania preside contentiously — are the rulers of a cozily conceived Athens, Duke Theseus and his fiancee, the Amazon Queen Hippolyta; the four young Athenian lovers whose course never does run smooth (until the end); and the simple tradesmen eager to make a good impression with a jerrybuilt theatrical presentation at the Theseus-Hippolyta nuptials.

Conveniently, two actors are sufficient to represent the rulers of both the secular and fairy realms. Jay Hemphill and Carrie Fedor were particularly vivid as Oberon and Titania at the preview. Their spat over who has servant rights to an attractive boy (never seen) had plenty of snarl and disdain from the get-go. Both projected an outsize air of command, until Titania's control is neutralized by a spell that causes her to fall in love with the isolated amateur actor Nick Bottom, the weaver, who has been transformed into a donkey.

Oberon applies some discipline for the sprite Puck's screw-up.
These machinations by Oberon are carried out by the effervescent sprite Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, played winsomely, with lilting mischievousness, by Sarah Hoffman. Puck complicates matters by some misdirected magic that scrambles the night-wandering lovers' affections. If there had been Facebook, the status reports would have been headspinning for Demetrius, Helena, Lysander, and Hermia. "In a relationship," yes   -- but which one, and for how long?

The sexual energy of the show runs rampant, almost clambering roughshod over its lyricism and exquisite verbal music. The confused lovers fairly fly about the stage, with entrances and exits at its four corners (the audience sitting on four sides). Consummations are devoutly wished, but thwarted.

Betsy Norton and Ethan Mathias portrayed the earnest mutual devotion of Hermia and Lysander as they escape the opposition of her father, Egeus (suitably control-freaky in Craig Kemp's performance). Their elopement is magically loaded with vexation, however, that the actors competently adjusted to. The other couple, Demetrius (Thomas Cardwell) and Helena (Andrea
Demetrius sweeps skeptical Helena off her feet

Hermia and Lysander settle on a romantic escape.
Heiden), are mismatched from the start, and their portrayals demand more from the actors. There were especially delicious touches in Heiden's glares, pouts, foot-stomping, recriminations, and over-the-top declarations that will make anyone who sees them feel young again — yet not regret no longer being so.

I have some difficulty with how the fourth level — the "rude mechanicals" and their interrupted preparations to entertain the court — is handled. The director's style is consistent, at least. He's resistant to linear storytelling, I'm guessing; there's an all-at-onceness to how we take in events that Shakespeare's play encourages. So you would not be amiss to view this show as you might a painting — in this case, an action painting, a la Jackson Pollock. The narrative is tucked into the jumble of relationships, with the crucial element of magic generating and justifying the jumble.

In the case of the tradesmen, however, something is lost if the group's internal rapport is buried under the silliness of their pretensions to theatrical competence. Here, they are irreducibly zanies throughout. Their pervasive doltishness, most of it quite loud, blunts the sweetness and sincerity of their desire to honor their rulers at the wedding celebration.

Peter Quince seems to me an imploringly gentle, firm character, nowhere near as manic as Marcy Thornsberry played him. Quince's hardest-to-manage colleague, Bottom, is referred to once as "sweet bully Bottom" when he goes missing. In Tristan Ross's admittedly astonishing portrayal, he is closer to today's meaning of "bully" than the affectionate sense the word once had — and as recently as Theodore Roosevelt's description of the presidency as "a bully pulpit." His aroused egotism should be more charming and irrepressible than stentorian.

EclecticPond's hellzapoppin' troupe of tradesmen.
The foolery is general and well-established in the tradesmen-actor performances I saw, which also include Evan Wallace as Flute, Fiona Dwyer as Snout, Sara Ferriell as Starveling, and Kemp as Snug. It's an excitable crew, all right, whose brawny daftness fits better with their court presentation than in what leads up to it. That command performance features prose commentary from the three couples once they're properly aligned and celebrating their unions.

One of Theseus' remarks there has always struck me as a glimpse of Shakespeare revealing himself. It's always dangerous to venture into such speculation about an author more guarded about his views than any other. I'll go ahead anyway: Theseus says, in mitigation of the six lovers' gentle mockery: "The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them."

That seems to be the best thing Shakespeare ever wrote about his business, probably even more heartfelt and personal than Hamlet's famous Advice to the Players.

Even the best in this kind need imagination's assistance, the Bard reminds us through Theseus. This production is closer to that end of the spectrum than the other. Provided you employ it actively, I suspect your imagination will be tickled, even if you may not be satisfied on all other points, by EclecticPond's "Midsummer Night's Dream."