July 5, 2007
SF Shakespeare's Midsummer Magic
By Susan Steinberg, The
A full moon and a full house(well,lawn) combined to welcome SF
Shakes 2007 free production in the park last Saturday night.
The crowd applauded a very different work from last year's sober
masterpiece The Tempest: the ever-popular romantic comedy
A Midsummer Night's Dream. Like Tempest, it combines
both mortals and fairy spirits who can influence human lives.
And, as in last year's show, the actors perform dual roles in
both worlds, adding a fascinating extra dimension to each.
Four mismatched young lovers and their marriage-of-political-necessity
rulers enter dream states in an enchanted forest, There a fanciful
crew of fairies, their King Oberon, his queen Titania, and the
famously mischievous sprite Puck change them all into wiser, more
Interwoven with both worlds are the simple local workmen trying
to rehearse their amateur play for the royal nuptials Their earnest
efforts provide some of the Bard's heartiest comedic scenes, in
almost vaudeville style.
As always, SF Shakes actors' miraculously clear articulation
made every word of the text easily accessible to listeners, including
those unfamiliar with Elizabethan speech. Even youngsters obviously
relished the realistic zest of the boyfriend/girlfriend dialogues,
as well as their fights (verbal cattiness for the girls, and more
testosterone-fueled physicality for the boys).
The broad burlesque humor of the rustic amateur players, with
their ignorant misuse of words, was endearing as well as hysterical.
In fact, the most outstanding cast member was veteran actor Gary
Martinez as Bottom the Weaver, with his vigorous theatrics (both
with and without his famous donkey's head). Hearing him emote
provides a textbook example of excellent Shakespearean delivery
- neither too declamatory nor too conversational, but bringing
out all the best of his lines with nuance and good humor.
All ages of listeners picked up on his hysterical malapropisms:
"We shall rehearse most obscenely" (obscurely), "flowers
of odious (odorous) savors sweet" and "I see a voice".
In fact the entire play-within-a-play is a virtual parody of all
Shakespeare scorned in lesser authors and actors, which he targeted
in other works, such as Hamlet's speech to the players. So too
are the lovers' hot protestations of undying love, changing instantly
to utter loathing. He ridiculed such exaggerated bombast in Sonnet
130, ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun").
Every actor in this production is strongly dedicated to playing
the comedy to the hilt without doing it grossly. It's a fine line
between exaggeration for effect and witless burlesque, and all
the players walk it deftly. Especially noteworthy are are the
long expository monologues by Oberon (Michael Storm), Titania
(Emily Jordan), and Puck (Rowan Brooks), which are carried off
with unusually stylish ease. (Many productions cut or eliminate
these beautiful lines just to speed the action.)
Maria Grazia Affinito as Helena does wonders with an overly lengthy
reminiscence of her childhood friendship with Hermia, now her
romantic rival. The tedious repetition of images("double
cherry", "two lovely berries on one stem", etc.)
is given just the right light touch of parody. Petite Summer Serafin
as sweet little Hermia responds to her friend's accusations with
surprisingly feisty spirit, achieving the realism of a girl's
While the well-trained cast-is nearly perfection, the production
itself is problematic. Pieces of the set and many props seem inexplicably
random, from odd pieces of metal bed-frames to a series of graduated
silver moon-balls and a not-very-functional large alarm clock
carried by chief courtier Philostrate.
Costumes are even more wildly varied, from the rulers' long leather
military coats, vaguely evocative of Cold War heavies, to their
skintight shiny metallic forest outfits, like something from a
futuristic intergalactic movie. Hermia's 50's-style yellow prom
dress and Helena's more Carnaby Street mod togs, their boyfriends'
streetcorner-casual t-shirts, and the peasants' anonymous black
"nightclub band" attire may evoke "timelessness"
to the director, but seemed a confusing hodgepodge to this viewer.
The insertion of off-beat recorded musical excerpts has become
a newly-popular way of "jazzing up" Shakespeare. In
last year's "Merchant of Venice" at Cal Shakes, Shylock
lived in a dumpster fall of money, serenaded by a recording of
"If I Were a. Rich Man". In this production similar
musical excerpts bracketed many scenes and even competed at one
point with an actor's speech. Traditional minded listeners were
not amused, but younger ones obviously happy to hear popular music
grafted onto a classical play, gave the show their rapt attention.
Kudos to SF Shakes for so successfully bridging the gap between
page and stage, and appealing to the wide age span present. Special
bravos to trouper Rowan Brooke (Puck), who played a very physically
demanding role despite a back injury sustained during dress rehearsal;
(His broad Cockney speech for Puck, while well-differentiated
from the courtly Philostrate's English, is a bit difficult for
American ears, and probably should be modified in future performances.)
All the rustic players are excellent - the best such group in
memory - with their presentation of outrageous comedy in deadpan
earnest. Lewis Sims, as Peter Quince, gives a wonderful true-to-text
delivery of the Prologue, his errors of miss-spoken punctuation
transforming this usual polite speech into a rude mess.
It's an evening of rollicking fun for the whole family during
the next two weekends, with performances at Pleasanton's Amador
(Aquatic) Community Park, Santa Rita and Black Avenues. Remaining
shows are all at 7:30. PM, on Friday, July 6th, Sunday, July 8th,
Saturday, July 14th , and Sunday July 15th .
For more information, call 925-931-5340 or visit www.sfshakes.org.
Come early, bring a picnic, a low beach chair, and a warm jacket.
Admission is free, but like most happy attendees, you'll probably
want to help fill this fine company's donation baskets.