The great German director Max Reinhardt may have been able to mount some 24 different versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, including a 1935 film that starred James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck. Most mere mortals, however, learn that presenting even one fully staged production of Shakespeare's comedy is an ambitious undertaking. If the slapstick comes off as forced, there go the scenes with the rude mechanicals. Should the three pairs of lovers (make that four if the roles of Theseus/ Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania aren't double-cast) fail to convince, so much for the romance angle. And heaven help the director beset by technical woes or clumps of annoying fairies.
But if the Bug Theatre Company has demonstrated anything during its relatively short (since 1998) existence, it's that its members are up for a challenge. While director Steve Wilson's production of Dream, which played to a full house on opening night, proves more a collision of styles than a happy confluence, the Bug's appetite for experiment and strong production values bodes well for future classical forays.
The three-hour show is set in a netherworld of cascading flowers, with a crescent moon, a romantically lit backdrop and, located at an upstage corner, a blossom-covered rubber netting of the sort used by Marines scrambling down the side of a warship. Following a cacophonous induction scene in which the fairy population "blesses" the palace of Theseus, the Athenian duke and his Amazon queen, Hippolyta, enter along with a few of their subjects. And from the get-go, Wilson's premise seems off-kilter. As scripted, a supernatural presence is made manifest only after the mortal rulers have been introduced and their (misplaced) authority established; here the humans appear to be hapless visitors in a kingdom already subject to fairy rule. And while that might indeed be the case, it's infinitely more fun to watch that situation evolve as Shakespeare wrote it than to prematurely join the battle. The world's greatest comedian, after all, knew a thing or two about carefully setting up a fall and slowly ripening characters for comic harvest.
After that bumpy beginning, Wilson and company eventually manage to get on the laugh track, especially when the lovelorn Helena attaches herself with doglike devotion to the indifferent Demetrius. Though formerly betrothed to Helena, Demetrius now has eyes only for Hermia -- who, against her father's wishes, shares clover-rolling designs with Demetrius's rival, Lysander. Although the play indicates that Helena is the taller of the two (and is envious of Hermia's good looks), Amanda Kay Berg, who plays Helena, is an attractive ingenue-ish type, while Donna Morrison, who portrays Hermia, is a similarly built character actress. But even though Wilson's casting doesn't take full advantage of the girls' physical differences -- in one argument, Helena calls Hermia a puppet and the shorter lass labels her enemy a "painted maypole" -- it underscores one character's advice to love "not with the eye but with the mind." Overall, the affable quartet, rounded out by Darren Schroader and Brian Upton, comes off as properly earnest and youthfully obstinate.
Unfortunately, the early scenes with the rude mechanicals are so broadly played that their bumbling efforts seem all too real to be enjoyed as satire. Lines that should float with guileless pluck are blared or brayed, and most of the physical humor is lost amid a sea of gesticulating. In fact, Wilson has them all stand in a straight line at the outset -- a feat that belies the characters' modest performing abilities and, as happens elsewhere in the drama, makes this show look like stand-and-declaim Shakespeare. However, by the time the famous play-within-a-play scene rolls around, the actors have settled into their parts. In particular, Step Pearce's drag turn as Flute/Thisby is a hoot, and C.J. Hosier's futile efforts to gently discipline the ragtag company make the role of Quince seem even more of a comic gem. (The versatile actor also designed the company's colorful costumes.)
But the finest performances belong to Eric Lawrence and McPherson Horle, who, as warring fairy king and queen, lend both authority and passion to the roles of Oberon and Titania; one only wishes that they would have been given an even greater opportunity to flex their acting muscles by, as often occurs with productions of Dream, taking on the parts of Theseus and Hippolyta as well. And even though Gary Culig's rendering of Puck drifts uncomfortably into frenzied screeching, the talented actor makes the most of his character's episodes of poetic calm. Along with Alex Weimer's intriguing setting and Trey R. Barker's rich lighting design, the group's effort is a clear sign that the self-proclaimed "best little theater company in Denver" is determined, however vociferously, to achieve great things.
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