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Friday, June 27, 2014

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The State of the Stage Dept.: Shakespeare in the French Quarter? Based on my interview with actor Johnny Lee Davenport and director Tony Simotes, Lenox-based Shakespeare & Co.’s upcoming “Midsummer” ought to work quite well.


“I LIKE THE IDEA of being in a world of magic. In the South, that kind of world is more of a reality,” says Johnny Lee Davenport, and he launches into the opening strain of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You.” He’s in his 14th season at Lenox’s Shakespeare & Company, where he’s playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Glendower in Henry IV.

Johnny Lee Davenport
and Tony Simotes
Photo by B. A. Nilsson

He’s a “Midsummer” veteran, but in the weightier role of Oberon. “When Tony suggested I play Bottom, I jumped at the chance.”

That’s Tony Simotes, the company’s artistic director, who is directing this production and has set the piece in New Orleans. “Looking at ‘Midsummer’ again, I wanted to find something new. In this case, it was music.” Simotes has worked with music all his life, as a professional drummer–he played Buddy Rich in a Sinatra mini-series–and in theatrical contexts, and the New Orleans setting invited a musical dimension as well as provided a different context for the show’s magic.

“Shakespeare offers a perfect platform from which to utilize the whole self as an artist, and this cast is a group that sings and plays and dances very well.”

The score is a mix of older tunes with original music by Alex Sovronsky, who is also playing Flute. Sovronsky also is scoring this season’s productions of “Henry IV,” in which he plays Mortimer, and “Shakespeare’s Will.”

Davenport is an imposing presence whose stage career includes 115 plays, 25 of them by Shakespeare. He was in the Chicago premiere of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” he was part of the Washington D.C. Shakespeare Theatre Company’s tour through Greece of “The Oedipus Plays,” and has performed as Othello and Iago with the Second Age Theatre Company in Dublin.

But he’s delighted to be back in Lenox, this time in a comic role with a roster of songs. “I’m from Shreveport,” he says, “so this has me rediscovering my Delta roots. I’m singing songs like ‘Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me’ and ‘Gone Fishin’’ and ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ And some of the text is set to music, too, so ‘The raging rocks/And shivering shocks’ turns into a 12-bar blues.”

Of which Davenport and Simotes obligingly sing a few bars. We’re in the lobby of the Packer Playhouse, where the show is about to have a tech rehearsal. That’s a process, often tense, during which lights and sound cues are checked and costume problems resolved, even as the actors refine blocking and try once and for all to get off book.

But there’s no spirit of tension here. In fact, as Simotes observes, tech can be a valuable time of discovery, as is demonstrated later when the dynamic Michael F. Toomey, playing Puck, finds new movements with which to define his character, even as he works around a whimsical set with overhanging lamps that lower to become swamp-rooted trees.

Michael F. Toomey
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Designer Travis George has colorfully tiled the thrust stage and given a French Quarter look to an upstage array of shutters and lamps and railings. Costume designer Deborah A. Brothers hails from New Orleans and has given the cast a look of the quirkily vernacular, suiting the spirit of a music-intensive mise-en-scène.

“When you see the mechanicals at the top of the show,” says Simotes, “they’re like a loose band. When you’re a musician you may have other jobs, but you get together to jam. So these people know each other as musicians—but now they’re getting together to do a play. Which is entirely new for them. And so the music kind of collides with the play, but in a way that feels organic. The magic of the people and the culture come together.”

“‘There’s the blues you get from worry,’” Davenport croons, “‘and there’s the blues you get from pain ...’”

“There’s no way I could imagine all the elements of this production,” says Simotes. “The joy of working with a cast like this is that I don’t have to come up with everything. I just have to shape what they give me.

“Tony allows you to bring your game, adds Davenport. “He creates the art of our input. It’s one of the most truly collaborative efforts I’ve been in in years.”

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is in previews through Friday (June 27); it opens Sunday (June 29) and runs through Aug. 30. More info and tickets are available online at

Metroland Magazine, 26 June 2014

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