What revels are in hand in Griffith Park this summer? An abundance of mirth, merriment, mischief, and magic, all part of Independent Shakespeare Co.'s 2012 summer of Free Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Winter's Tale are currently running in rep and A Comedy of Errors will be added to the schedule in August. These are summer pleasures that are sure to resonate with Angelenos if the opening night of A Midsummer Night's Dream is any indication of what's to come.
Throughout the evening I was continually delighted by the actors' choices and how thoroughly they mined the depths of the text to find unexpected richness in the words; to find humor in the most overlooked lines, thereby elevating them to greater purpose. Melissa Chalsma, who directs the play, as well as playing Titania & Hippolita, has drawn fresh interpretations of these familiar characters from the ensemble making it all the more appealing to those who have seen Midsummer before.
As in many of Shakespeare's plays, worlds collide in the woods. Lovers flee, fall under a magical spell, awake to an altered reality, and are plagued with problems before all is put right by journey's end. A band of amateur players who wish to perform their play before the Duke meet to rehearse with comical unforeseen consequences. And a fairy queen defies her king, angering him enough to charm her so she falls in love with a mortal turned ass. All manner of confusion and hilarity ensue in this midsummer night in the forest, while fairies frolic, play tricks, and make music.
The acting is terrific from top to Bottom. Lysander (André Martin) and Demetrius (Erwin Tuazon) come to hilarious blows in their pursuit of the fair Helena (Aisha Kabia), who can't understand how she has gone from being spurned by one man to being pursued by two, much to her friend Hermia's (Mary Guilliams) dismay. Each is a priceless reminder that the course of true love never did run smooth but it sure does run funny when lovers don't get their way.
Much of the success of Midsummer rests with Bottom and his band of rude mechanicals. I have oft been disappointed when they are presented as simply over-the-top two-dimensional caricatures for they are the heart of the working class and it is the honesty in their intentions that is so endearing and also so very comical.
Happily, a more lovable bunch of rustics you'll never find than Danny Campbell and his fellow players: Xavi Moreno (Flute the bellows-mender), Richard Azurdia (Snug the joiner), Thomas Ehas (Robin Starveling, the tailor), Jon Michael Hickenbottom (Snout, the tinker), and Bernadette Sullivan (Peter Quince, the carpenter). Campbell beams as Sullivan gives out the parts for their play, Pyramus and Thisbe, and like an overgrown child he's ready to jump in and play them all. You can't help but smile at his exuberance and the look on Sullivan's face is priceless every time. When Titania (Chalsma) falls in love with him, thanks to Oberon's (Luis Galindo) prank, it is a delightful comedy of errors made even funnier by their mismatched appearances.
Mischief, thy name is Puck, and Sean Pritchett makes a gleeful trickster. Part rascal – part imp, he races through the audience at breakneck speed, dodging and winking, bare-chested and full of bravado but always with a measure of playfulness in tow.
Caitlin Lainoff's cut-out set with its many frames and openings adds a lighthearted visual for the intersection of the two worlds. Costume designer Garry Lennon contrasts the modern day clothing of the mortals with the Renaissance garb of the fairies in a nod to Shakespeare, who is credited as the first English literary figure to give fairies a voice by having them occur as characters.
For this troupe of players, it's all about connecting with the audience. The staging often takes the actors out among them with the audience becoming actively involved in the fun. Watching them interact I could see how essential this kind of dialogue is to the members of our extended theatre community. On stage and off, every age and ethnicity can be found. What an inspiration for a student to see themselves reflected in the faces of the actors in front of them. I can't help but think that has the power to open up a new world to them even as it entertains.
But don't take my word for it. Here's what the audience had to say when I asked them what they thought of the show.
At intermission, first timer Oliviana Halus Griep said, "It's really, really fun. I like it and it's all really funny, and I understand it. I'm glad we came!" And her mom Evelyn Halus (also a first timer to the Griffith Park Shakespeare Festival) added, "I'm having a blast. I'm amazed at this beautiful setting and the talented performers onstage."