Thursday, March 1, 2018

Butler's "Midsummer Night's Dream" is a starlight express train through a topsy-turvy world

There's nothing topical about the frothy unreality of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" — except for the
fact that we all live in an extremely unsettled world where nothing rests on a firm bottom for long.

And that gets at the very deliciousness of the one-night-only performance of Shakespeare's comedy at Clowes Hall Wednesday night. The buoyant Bottom the Weaver is the central character in a play whose cast is potentially huge, thanks to four different levels of action representing three distinct communities. At whatever scale it's presented, a good Bottom is essential, and this Butler University production fortunately had one.

True, the scale of this show was small: a 90-minute adaptation by Diane Timmerman, who chairs Butler's theater department, was the vehicle. Supporting actors to flesh out the fairy entourages of Oberon and Titania and populate the Athenian court of Theseus and Hippolyta were held to a minimum. More crucially, four cast members playing the mixed-up lovers also did yeoman service in the jerrybuilt troupe of city tradesmen who wax theatrical to help Theseus and Hippolyta celebrate their fraught nuptials.

The theatrical concentrate thus offered needed only the additional ingredient of production spectacle to result in a full-flavored dish. A "Midsummer Night's Dream" without glimmer, glow, and sparkle would be almost as much in error as one with an indifferent Bottom the Weaver.
It had those qualities in abundance, thanks to an expert design team featuring the star quality of Rob Koharchik (set), Ryan Koharchik (lighting), and Guy Clark (costumes). Bright points of light suffused the backdrop, and small lights on poles subtly marked off areas of action. A large piece of gauzy white fabric hid fairies, sleeping lovers, and the fatefully anesthetized Bottom, and was shifted about the stage adroitly as needed. Corbin Fritz's sound design supplemented what we saw, never overloaded, but rich in such touches as wordless gibbering for the fairies.

Hermia's lunge toward Helena is caught in mid-air by the male swains as Oberon looks on.
Jeffery Bird was Butler's Bottom, and aptly the focus whenever he was on stage. I couldn't see the point of his singing a bit of Adele's "Hello," but let that pass. And some of his best lines were trimmed, as were such set pieces as Theseus' speech highlighted by "the poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling," etc. I'll admit that cuts in Shakespeare are always like pepper thrown in a critic's face: He must sneeze. It's inevitable. Readers are invited to roll their eyes and say "Gesundheit!"

That aside, I found Timmerman's version preserved the essentials. Constance Macy's direction, among other virtues, had the student actors scrupulous about saying verse naturally. They are helped in this play, of course, by the playwright's genius at conveying real feelings in rhymed couplets. Still, the cast is to be commended for the clarity and naturalness of their iambic-pentameter delivery.

I also admired the director's cultivation of an acting style far from the realism in which most drama saturates us. None of Shakespeare privileges a realistic approach, despite the depth, truth, and variety of the emotions so supremely expressed. But this play in particular, with its transformative spells and flower juices and its wealth of contradictions, malapropisms and bafflements, suggests a physical approach to the nth degree.

Thus, in their set-to the young men adopted ninja posturings, and the mismatched couples quarreled, flailed,  and clung, and sometimes ended up in heaps and clusters. There were quasi-balletic leaps and catches. Haley Loquercio (Hermia), Sarah Ault (Helena), Isaiah Moore (Demetrius), and Ian Hunt (Lysander) managed all this while projecting their lines well (assisted by today's essential face microphones).

Among the most inspired latter-day appropriations  of the oxymorons and synesthesia characteristic of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is Duke Ellington's titling his Shakespearean suite "Such Sweet Thunder." That phrase could well sum up the achievement of Butler's production of this foundational dream play. All the hassle, the roiling romantic spats, mistaken identities, and misalignments carried the disturbing force of thunder, yet sweetness seasoned everything.

[Photo by Brent Smith]