Sunday, July 25, 2021

'Of imagination all compact': Indy Shakes helps inaugurate a refurbished park site with a splendid 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

Scene of enchantment: The full cast of "Dream" in an unforgettable setting

The professionalism long characteristic of the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company makes the most of new room to romp in as it inaugurates the refurbished Taggart Memorial Amphitheater at Riverside Park.

The 2021 production to mark the company's  renewed activity in a new place is "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a comedy of special stature as far as Shakespeare's poetry, comic insight, and dramatic elan are concerned. There are many ways for stagings of this magical play to succeed, and Indy Shakes seems to have accessed all of them.

The new production, which has three more performances next weekend, is designed with such imagination and evident zest that everything the audience sees throughout its two-hour span is worthy of the occasion. Furthermore, the concepts embodied in this show meet the play's embrace of risk and change on its own terms. And then, the performance itself (as seen July 24) is stunningly well-integrated and brought off by an array of the Indianapolis area's best actors.

As director, Lauren Morris takes up the inherent confusion of the action boldly, while finding ways of getting her players to bring clarity to it all. With the production's pristine amplified sound and the vividness with which the cast delivers the text, no audience is likely to be subject to any more bafflement than what "Dream" itself properly presents.

Not only has Morris cast the play's two most powerful couples — Theseus and Hippolyta of secular ancient Greece and Oberon and Titania of fairyland — with the same two actors, but with the help of Guy Clark's costume design, imbued them with gender fluidity. In 2021, we've learned that sexual politics involves more complex questions of identity than even Kate Millett imagined. In a world of witchcraft, these questions are all the more pronounced: we see an  Oberon sweeping about the stage in a flowing robe showing a lot of leg and an androgynous Titania with a chopped-off hairstyle clad with dark goth severity. Maleness and femaleness are subject to interpretation.

Their opposite numbers in Athens are more conventionally assigned, but care is taken not to turn costuming into disguise. We first see Constance Macy as Hippolyta primped by underlings, then striking a forced model pose; acquired through warfare, she's a reluctant trophy wife in the making. Her forthcoming wedding to King Theseus (Jen Johansen) is the occasion for all the tense anticipation pervading the play: when her groom-captor reaches out for a hand to accompany her offstage, she disdains his grasp with a swipe of the hand,  like Melania publicly rejecting an overture by Donald.

Then there is Milicent Wright as the forceful parent Egeus, pressing the case for linking daughter Hermia to eligible bachelor Demetrius. Hermia, played with feisty resolve by Kim Egan, is clear about her opposition. Enforcing parental privilege in such matters, the king rules that, if she persists in her frowardness, perpetual maidenhood in a convent awaits her, "chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon." 

It's an early reminder of the poetic image the earth's satellite has carried from ancient times, attractive to lovers but with its periodic changes symbolizing fickleness and promising compulsory chastity and barrenness  to those she rules. Set designer S. Bart Simpson has brilliantly picked up on the moon's significance in the stage's two main props: large white crescents that can serve as both couches and shelters separately or embrace a passageway and imply a sphere when stood on end and curved toward each other. The moon reigns in the play's nighttime setting, its waxing and waning indicating the pervasive threats to happy romantic unions. I have rarely seen any staging's structural element carry so much symbolism so usefully and so gracefully. I could barely stop admiring those crescents throughout the show, especially with the superb lighting design of Laura E. Glover to enhance them and their surroundings.

The young lovers arrive at the right alliances at last.

The young lovers, obstacles to whose happiness are too tangled to explain here, received poised portrayals amid all the confusion they must try to work through in the maze of the nighttime wood. In addition to Egan, Adam Tran (Demetrius), Kelsey Johnson (Helena), and Daniel A. Martin (Lysander) brought their characters' different levels of wiliness and desperation to the fore, their physical struggles coached by fight choreographer Rob Johansen. When fragmentary dance or frozen movements are on order, Mariel Greenlee's choreography has neatly supplied them.

Indy Shakes has drawn a remarkable history of commitment from actors here, such that the "rude mechanicals" who prepare a travesty drama for the impending royal ceremony are practically an all-star assemblage. This troupe is under the super-confident direction of Milicent Wright's Peter Quince. With some well-managed overlap with Tatiana's entourage of fairies, the roughhewn amateurs under the carpenter's command are Claire Wilcher's Bottom, Charles Goad 's  Starveling, Michael Hosp's  Snug, Shawnte P. Gaston's Snout, and Isaiah Moore's Flute.

Excitable tradesmen-players of Athens put on a play.

Among the stellar cast's fresh, wise portrayals is Joshua Coomer's Puck, the nimble servant of the fairy king Oberon, who has the play's last words. The character's bid for applause is set in a context of acknowledging error in both the natural and supernatural worlds. Puck is amply familiar with both, as the audience sees through his mistaken magical anointing of the wrong Athenian swain in the woods. That error has baffled the romantic liaisons, giving extra weight to the pregnant remark of one of the lovers — "The course of true love never did run smooth" — that 's among Shakespeare's chief contributions to the world's stock of adages.

Error, misprision, and flaws of action and ambition, presented most openly in the Athenian blue-collar workers' travesty of a mythological tragedy, are folded into the play's message of finding harmony in love and mutual acceptance. The actors' command of and evident respect for the  play's language was instructive. It  was never woodenly shaped, but always achieved a blend that honored both the artificiality of the verse and its inherent naturalness of expression.

Animating all this was the thoroughgoing honor the production gives to supernatural elements, whether spoken or visual. A "Dream" of convincing force must always seem to believe in the illusion as much as in the reality through which the story engages our emotions. At the root of that story is a validation of ethical behavior in matters of the heart.

Here's an example of what I mean that some may find farfetched: I've often thought, even as an ex-Christian, that the gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry require both the miracles and the real-life lessons for the significance of the narrative to come through, setting aside the theology. Similarly, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" runs into danger if it treats the magic as no more than charming decoration. Everything is essential. Suspension of disbelief is a mandate. At bottom, charity is the iron law.

The play's manner of showing how difficult interpersonal harmony is to achieve is inseparable from the fantasy that inflects the story. All the details — the lavish evocations of nature, both actual and imagined — are embedded. Enchantment is the necessary companion to better behavior, though that's not guaranteed. When Oberon introduces Puck to a magic flower he wants him to fetch, though for ignoble purposes, the fairy king begins, self-spellbound: "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows." 

I was all ears as Jen Johansen said it, as if I might want to find such a flower, perhaps for a better application, but who knows? Being susceptible to such enchantment involves a state of mind and belief that this marvelous production makes easy. You won't find a more inviting way to get to know the revived Taggart Amphitheatre than by taking in Indy Shakes' "Dream."

 [Photos by Wildfire]

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