Ashland, Ore., has come to Syracuse. Timothy Bond, producing artistic director at Syracuse Stage, served for more than 10 years with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Over the years, he has favored some old Ashland colleagues, such as director Penny Metropoulous, who helmed last spring’s Red.
With the current mounting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we see for the first time a Shakespeare favorite with all the hellzapoppin energy and visual pizzazz of a major festival production, rising above the standards of regional theater. True, only 39-year-old director Bill Fennelly and supporting player William Langan (Egeus) are imports from Oregon, and nearly all the rest of the talent is local or from New York City. But this Midsummer Night’s Dream delivers the excitement people go on cultural pilgrimage to find.
Fifteen of the local faces in the large cast come from Syracuse University Drama Department students. Under the usual rules from Actors’ Equity, the professional union, only a limited number of non-professionals may appear in a professional production. The tradition of big holiday musicals with choruses of dancing students began with Peter Pan in December 2000, but under the aegis of SU Drama.
The logos of Syracuse Stage and SU Drama were juxtaposed for the first time with Rent in February 2011. Those co-productions, which bring the services of choreographer Anthony Salatino, have been hugely popular with audiences, generally doing the best box office of the season. Yet a co-production of Shakespeare comedy, while aiding the effort to get the festival look, represents a departure from convention and may signal good things to come.
Words, as coached by SU Drama chair Ralph Zito, are always important in a Shakespeare production, but audiences who see this mounting will remark first about the look of it. As we enter the theater we see Hippolyta (Kimiye Corwin), Queen of the Amazons, asleep on a platform hammocked down from the flies.
Director Fennelly is reminding us that the word “dream” in the title is not to be ignored. Scenic designer Andrew Boyce and lighting designer Thom Weaver have set the action on an undulating grassy knoll, vaguely suggestive of a Rene Magritte, with mirrored walls to the left and right sides that contain hidden doorways. It’s a space where anything could happen.
Costume designer Jessica Ford never lets the ambiance settle in a single era or epoch. When we are in what the play calls “Athens,” it looks like Ruritania, with men of power sporting lots of military braid. As we enter the imagination of fairyland, we see opera buffa, with great puffs of tulle, juxtaposed with steampunk irony. When toward the end the fairies are dancing barefoot in diaphanous gowns, they look like sprites following Isadora Duncan.
Sound designer Fitz Patton’s recorded musical allusions are equally witty and inventive, ranging from Puccini to the Indonesian gamelan.
The passage from the realm of everyday, Athens, to the night of the dream is prompted by disappointed young lovers. Spunky Hermia (Rachel Slotky) has been ordered by her father Egeus (William Langan), a wealthy landowner, to marry the red uniformed soldier Demetrius (Max Miller) under stiff penalty. She prefers the forthright scholar Lysander (Ethan Butler). Following the rules of the country, the tall, imposing duke, Theseus (Lindsay Smiling), will condemn Hermia to a nunnery if she does not relent within four days. No villain, Demetrius admits to an earlier betrothal to Hermia’s friend Helena (Rachel Towne), a gardener’s daughter of country ways.
Extending the tension, Helena still has the jones for Demetrius, not now returned. The foursome resolve to repair to a wood a few miles from Athens, which at night becomes the realm of the fairies.
Once we get there most of the faces look familiar. The king of the fairies, Oberon, is once again a commanding tall man with the build of an Olympic athlete and a resonant baritone, but played by Lindsay Smiling, who was just Duke Theseus. Kimiye Corwin, as his intended bride Hippolyta, is now Titania, the queen of the fairies. David L. Townsend, who first appeared as the less-than-conspicuous ducal adviser Philostrate in Athens, now becomes the horn-wearing Puck, Oberon’s go-fer and the major mischief-maker. In Townsend’s hands, he’s also the principal scene-stealer in a show flush with action. No one can upstage Smiling or Corwin, but Townsend’s Puck can win a big laugh merely by reporting a sharp pain in his rib.
To have some fun with Titania, Oberon conspires with Puck to take a magic potion from a certain flower and put it in her eyes so that she will fall in love with the first person she sees. Collaterally, this same passion-juice in the eyes of the four young people rearranges the love vectors.
The prize in Oberon’s stratagem is the most famous comic love scene in all literature, where the exquisite Titania finds herself in bed with the banal and boorish Nick Bottom (John Pribyl). Bottom and his pals, the Mechanicals, had been delivering comic relief from their first entrance, signaled by Snug’s (Juan Carlos Vélez-Sánchez) boom box blaring heavy metal.
Costume designer Jessica Ford ensures that each is a comic figure, but not a type. One innovation in casting is to have Francis Flute, the bellows mender, played by a woman, the excellent Celia Madeoy, which undercuts a line about having a beard.
With his long white hair tied in a pigtail, Pribyl’s Bottom is not the crude lout of other productions, but rather a self-inflated aesthete who imagines himself an artiste. He and his boys have been rehearsing an insipid romance for the wedding of the Duke and Hippolyta back in Athens. Although Fennelly and Pribyl cut new ground with Bottom (the post-coital cigarette is an uproarious touch), the delivery of the playlet in the last act is surprisingly slow, the only slack moments in more than 2 1/2 breath-stopping hours.
While all of the professionals, like Townsend’s Puck, Corwin’s Hippolyta/ Titania and Smiling’s Theseus/Oberon deliver their speeches with magnificent diction to compelling affect, projecting auras that dominate the space they inhabit, there is no shorting the contributions of the students. Under choreographer Anthony Salatino’s guidance the movement of the several fairies, named and unnamed, would make a show by themselves. Add to this Felix Ivanov’s direction of the fight scenes, in which inter-lover combat somehow (oops) leads to shedding more and more clothing.
We continue to teach Shakespeare to students because he’s supposed to be good for you, like broccoli. In this Bill Fennelly-conceived production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is much like the puffs of pastel tulle seen throughout: airy and arresting, with more than a hint of the naughty. o
This production runs through March 31.