Pity poor Peter Quince. He has hewn the cross borne by countless community theatre producers. He struggles with a poor script, dropped lines, competing egos, stage fright, and a bombastic prima donna with exaggerated sense of his own skills.
Sidonie Garret has no such burden. This season's director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has excellent scripts, a proficient troupe, and skillful technical production on every level.
The central story of A Midsummer Night's Dream is the Hermia love triangle. This Athenian debutante loves Lysander, who loves her. So does Demetrius, who jilts Hermia's BFF Helena to pursue the former. By the end of the show it is obvious that “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
There are essentially 3 casts navigating the Midsummer Night's Dream. These are the Court of Mortals, the Court of Faeries, and the Clowns. Each has something to recommend it, but the upper-crust Athenians get short shrift through the action. Despite what Robin Leach insists, the lifestyles of the rich and famous are just not that interesting. In this work Shakespeare is playing to the groundlings, and they want to see people like themselves dealing with the Fantastic.
The set was Elizabethan minimalism at its best. Shakespeare—with wild departures from unity of time, place, and action—left scenery to his audience's imagination. This set did, as well. The three set pieces perform double-duty in the comedy, representing both the Court of King Theseus and the Enchanted forest beyond the gates of Athens. A simple revolution of a piece, low-key application of lights to flora, and the shift was complete.
The costumes presented some intriguing choices. The Athenians wore costumes in the Regency style. Actors at the Globe, of course, would have worn costumes of their own era—Elizabethan--while “historical” accuracy would have dressed them in Bronze Age Greek attire. Director Garret picked costumes halfway between Shakespeare's age and our own. This was the era known as the Romantic Period when poets were discovering anew the Classical Age with its mythological wonders. As Shakespeare had no qualms about anachronism—slipping Roman Cupid and Vestals amidst the Greek Court of Theseus and Hippolyta—this costume choice works. (I may have been the only observer even to question it.)
Costumes for the Faeries seemed inspired by the Persia of 101 Nights. The King and Queen had billowing, gauzy garb while their retainers wore bright floral colors. Most bore glittery colors painted like masks upon their faces. Their movements were a delicate dance. Glittery, sparkly music accompanied their movements. It was magical, as faeries should be.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy of errors. Each of these errors advances the plot. There is the error of Puck enchanting the wrong suitor. There is the error of the amateur players picking an Enchanted Forest for their rehearsal. There is the biggest error of all—the one which gets the plot moving—when Hermia trusts her friend Helena with news of her and Lysander's plans to elope. Helena gets the illogical idea to inform Lysander's rival of that plan, hoping that Demetrius will reward her for this information with his love.
As brilliant as Shakespeare were at psychological portrayal, he sometimes leaves gaping holes in his plots. For whatever reason, he never fixed these plot troubles in later Folio editions of the play. The writer's need to get Demetrius and Helena to the forest are understandable, and even the best writers have weak moments. Perhaps the music of the language was more important than strict narrative consistency. Perhaps Helena just isn't that bright. She is obsessed with a cad who dumped her for her friend. And pursued that friend by toadying up to her father. But observation suggests that intelligence has nothing to do with poor romantic choices. And Helena's witty repartee with Hermia in later scenes seems to argue against this.
Regardless, embraced by the limbs of the Forest the three casts move in intersecting tangents with hilarious results. Shakespeare used the skeletal tale of the Athenian lovers on which to hang the muscle of faery antics and flesh of the tradesmen's theatrics.
There is a hint of lampoon in Shakespeare's treatment of the so-called “patches” who want to perform a dramatization of an Ovidian story to honor their regent at his wedding. Any serious Theatre student will recall the medieval morality plays performed by various trade guilds which competed against each other. For this production those artisans-cum-thespians deemed best in Athens unite for the production. We can almost hear Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland exclaim, “Hey, gang! Let's put on a show!” Thus the Bard parodies the all problems of staging a play. His actors are vocal and adamant with their suggestions of how to change the plot, the characters, the staging. The hapless director loses control of his production less from trusting his cast's instincts than his lack of directorial ability. The result is a muddled mess which leaves not only the Athenian Court but the Kansas City audience in stitches, howling with laughter, tears rolling down our faces.
Oberon's faeries were fantastic in a completely other definition of that word. Director Garret added liberal use of faery majik to wonderful comedic affect. Those who have read Shakespeare realize his spartan use of stage directions. Most of the show's blocking and all of the characters' “business” comes from either director or actor. With impeccable pantomime timing some faery—King Oberon, for instance—gestured the casting of a spell and, across the stage, another character caught up short, whirled around, and dashed in another direction. A sound effect gave those “spells” a tingly chime which all the audience willingly believed.
All of the cast performed admirably. There were, unfortunately, too many to mention them all individually. There were three whose high caliber shot the production into the stratosphere. Matthew Rapport was the bombastic Nick Bottom, a weaver by trade, who thought himself a fine actor, indeed. He wanted to play all the parts and insisted director Quince compose a prologue to lest the genteel ladies swoon from emotions he evoked. Much bigger than life, Rapport strutted and fretted his hour to excellent effect., and when Puck morphed him into a jackass it had the flavor of just desserts.
As that impish Puck, Jacques Roy brought the energy of a world class athlete to the stage. Or, rather, a Circe de Soleil acrobat. Puck is a mischievous sprite whose name comes from the Celtic pooka. Roy lept and tumbled with flips, handsprings, and somersaults. He soared in constant defiance of gravity and all eyes followed his magical movements, his masterful pantomime, his exuberant playfulness. Puck creates the play's mayhem both deliberately and accidentally and Roy communicates this with aplomb.
Finally, an actress with a very faery name—Cinnamon Schultz—stepped into a role that didn't, technically, exist. The director used lines assigned to generic faeries and created “Faery” as Titania's ballast for Oberon's Puck. In some scenes Faery served almost as a fay cursor hovering around the focus of a scene's action or dialogue, watching it with curiosity or bemusement. She affected a stance reminiscent of the Swiss mimes, Mummenschanz, and moved with fluidity. Shultz donned the role and modeled the theatre maxim that there are no small parts, only small actors.
As the magic winds down the Bard needs to move us back to the Court in Athens. The conclusion of the forest scenes deals with disenchantment. Becoming enchanted with Helena by way of a potion, Demetrius is disenchanted with Hermia. Lysander is disenchanted with Helena. Titania is disenchanted with Nick Bottom. Bottom is just disenchanted. (Apparently, Bottom never realizes his transformation. Just as alcohol often turns a man into an ass without him realizing it, this weaver the use of a potion—which is a plant extract, or drug—turns him into an ass.)
The Midsummer Night is almost over, but not before Shakespeare treats us to a delightful denouement. Peter Quince's Players present their play to the Athenian nobles: who heckle them as much as any groundlings likely ever did the Bard, himself. The result is a uproariously uplifting conclusion to the show. A splendid time is guaranteed for all!
The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival performs A Midsummer Night's Dream in rotation with Anthony & Cleopatra under the stars at Southmoreland Park across from the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Shows are Tuesdays - Sundays at 8 PM. It is well worth seeing.
It was Good-bye--
She passed his urn,
Put her fingers to her lips and
Carrying it down to
The coffer of ashes and dust
Touched her fingers to the lid
So kissed him
One final time
Before he boarded the barge.
It was Good-bye
To her partner and friend
Foundation and crutch
Whom she had known
Longer than anyone
Except her own parents:
Classmates and playmates and
One-flesh finishers of each others'
It was Good-bye
And much too soon
Cut short--if not in his prime--
At least still clinging to
Illusory vim and vigor
Not yet three score and ten
And still too young
To embark on this last cruise
As she wondered
Who would finish
Her sentences now?
It was Good-bye.
I was working in the Plaza District of Kansas City. The job was in a second floor office area performing what is called a “tenant finish”. That's where contractors go into an empty office space and craft it to the owner's specification. This one easily qualified as up-scale.
We had reached the stage of the job of tying up loose ends. Therefore there were stretches of inactivity. One of these periods found me in the office space allotted to the biggest of the Big Wigs. Two of the walls were plate-glass windows. The view was gorgeous, overlooking Nichols Road with its Seville-inspired architecture hosting shops and offices and boutiques of every stripe. It was a temperate autumn day. The streets and sidewalks were clean. Well-tended trees were donning their fall wardrobe. Lampposts, imitating the trees, extended trellis arms with hanging baskets of verdant vines.
Well past noon, the sidewalks carried pedestrian traffic, shoppers and tourists and students from nearby UMKC, not crowded by any means, but a steady flow. As I looked out the window one gentleman caught my eye. He was strolling east on the sidewalk across the street, taking his time. On his shoulder sat an Amazon parrot.
I blinked. The man had no peg leg. No eye-patch. No parrot poop dribbled down his back. It seemed so incongruous, yet the fellow was walking as if he were nothing out of the ordinary.
I pointed them out to a coworker, a Colombian painter who called himself Sean. Sean opined—in colorful language that doesn't bear repeating—how walking with such a bird might be useful for meeting women. He offered a few phrases to teach the parrot. I thought those phrases might be useful in getting his parrot killed.
In one of those memory tricks where an event or a sight or a smell thrusts one back through Time the parrot reminded me of a young woman I knew when I was with the Christopher Newport Theatre Department. She was a “techie” one of the vital cogs of any production whose aptitude lies in construction and design rather than strutting and fretting one's hour upon the stage. She was a cheerful and friendly person, though attractive enough she didn't need either of those qualities to garner masculine attentions. We were in the scene shop one day when she showed me a magazine photograph of a parrot. “Look!” she cried, “I have a parrot that looks just like this … except instead of red here it's orange with a little yellow around the edges.”
I chuckled. “That's cool,” I said. “I have a kitten that looks just like that. Except instead of feathers it has fur. And it's black instead of green. And it doesn't have a beak.” I don't know why I say things like that, but she got a kick out of it. I suppose it could have irritated her. I've been told I'm obnoxious, sometimes.
It wasn't long after that I was at her place with a couple other Theatre folk. She put on her new Rickie Lee Jones album and introduced us to her parrot. I wore a full beard in those days and the parrot liked men with beards. He sat on my arm and ran his beak through my beard. “It's because of the salt from your sweat,” his owner told me.
I blinked again. I was back in the 21st Century, 30 years and 1000 miles from my memory. Time slides like a glacier crushing rocks and stones and human bones beneath it, yet leaving hints of Aster scent in places.
Every birth is a Nativity
From the fat, full-term infant
In a state-of-the-art birthing center
To the crack baby born
In a dirty toilet stall without a door
In a public restroom beyond
The playground in a park
To the anecephalic newborn
Doomed to starve unsuckled
On her mother's breast.
Any birth may be Annointed
For the rise and fall of many
Might change the world
In ways unknown or be
Salvation to those whom she meets,
If only for the opportunity
To spark Compassion
Or Hope's frail renewal
In some stone-encrusted heart.
Leon has a new trick.Well, maybe two.