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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Jazz Bard

What's On Stage? Dept.: No self-respecting theater company sets Shakespeare's work anywhere near the time and place in and at which it was intended—but Shakespeare & Co.'s Midsummer Night's Dream does surprisingly well in its unlikely locale, as my review extols.


IT’S PARTY TIME in New Orleans–but wasn’t it always during that city’s fabled era as the wellspring of jazz? As a motley set of white-clad instrumentalists strikes up a rousing “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” on banjoleles and washboard, Johnny Lee Davenport and Jonathan Epstein trade off verses, soon engaging the entire onstage cast. Behind them are French Quarter lamps and filigree. But once the dialogue starts, we’re in the place of Shakespeare, and the many mentions of Athens probably don’t refer to the tiny northern-Louisiana town.

Photo by Kevin Sprague
For once again we’re witnessing the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta; once again a quartet of headstrong lovers will find unexpected magic in a drowsy glen; once again a troupe of villagers will put on a laughably terrible show within this show. It’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a Shakespeare & Company favorite, as reimagined by artistic director Tony Simotes.

And if he needed the New Orleans conceit to sneak music into the piece, more power to him. The music was fun, and the ramshackle script had no trouble accommodating it.
Using Peter Brook’s idea of doubling the royalty in forest and town, Rocco Sisto played both Theseus and fairy king Oberon, with Merritt Jansen as Hippolyta and Titania.

What a match! While the fairy royalty is having a quarrelsome time of it (par for the course, of course, says this veteran of decades of marriage), the doubling gives us a more overtly loving side with the Athenians, which fleshes out those relationships. And both actors were energetic and believable—especially when Jansen got to play out her sudden infatuation with ass-eared Bottom.

As played by Davenport, he was a study in unselfconscious swagger. This is an actor whose previous Dream appearances were as Oberon, so it must have been a joy to forego the crown and don the ears. He brings a commanding voice to the role, modulated to suit the character, but the added physicality was the best part. Bottom can’t seem to stop himself from taking over any situation, and in his transformed guise he was even funnier in his impulses.

And then there’s the matter of Pyramus, the doomed lover he plays. He’s up against the get-me-outta-here bashfulness of Flute the bellows-mender, who, as played by Alex Sovronsky, looks like Harold Lloyd even while wearing the blonde wig to play Pyramus’ beloved Thisbe.

The antics of Puck drive the plot, and it’s a role that, from Mickey Rooney on, invites obnoxiousness. But Michael F. Toomey eschews the easy laughs even as he finds fresh ones. Wearing an aviator hat and goggles, sporting a leather tool belt holding unlikely gadgets, his impulsive eagerness is tempered by self-awareness: Things evidently have gone wrong before.

What doesn’t work is the seemingly nonstop running and leaping of Lysander (David Joseph) and Demetrius (Colby Lewis). They’re terrific actors, sure in their lines, elegant in motion—but the motion gets charged up to a distracting frenzy.

Kelly Galvin’s Hermia reminded me of a pre-code Kay Francis, vulnerable yet assertive (and without the speech impediment), proudly flaunting her sexuality. Helena, in relentless pursuit of Demetrius, was more reserved, but Cloteal L. Horne played her as one able to summon a sense of majesty when needed.

In this Delta-based re-setting, the Mechanicals are also musicians, and if Peter Quince, their leader, weren’t already monikered, he’d be called “Professor,” tricked out as he was in his own idea of formal attire, and with a comically lustrous wig. In Jonathan Epstein’s deft characterization, he delivered Shakespeare’s text with a Cajun twang, which is no mean feat.

Other songs included “I’ll Fly Away,” which began in the lobby at intermission’s end and led us back into the theater; “Keep on the Sunny Side” and a wonderfully plaintive version of Henry Thomas’s “Fishing Song.” Original music by Sovronsky added effective shades to the proceedings.

And then there’s that play at the end. Its success can be judged by the astonished reaction of the talkative trio of oldsters behind me. After a sufficiency of “What’d he say?” and “Why’s she doing that?” they were momentarily nonplussed by the excellent awfulness of the Pyramus-Thisbe sketch. And then: “Why, that’s terrible!”

It was wonderful.

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare, directed by Tony Simotes, Shakespeare & Company, through Aug. 30.
Metroland Magazine, 10 July 2014

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