Free Shakespeare in the Park

The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival
2002 Main Stage Season Free Shakespeare in the Park Shakespeare on Tour Midnight Shakespeare Bay Area Shakespeare Camps



(L to R) John Sousa as Demetrius and Nicholas Pelczar as Lysander in
Free Shakespeare in the Park's 2007 production of
A Midsummer Night's Dream

July 5, 2007

SF Shakespeare's Midsummer Magic

By Susan Steinberg, The Independent

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 mature couples.

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 locker-room quarrel.

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

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.

Support the Festival Links About Us Jobs & Auditions News Contact Us