Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2005
I confess to being concerned when I first saw the publicity stills for the Bakerloo Theatre Project’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”. They featured Sarah Murphy in costume as Cobweb looking like a Threepenny whore in Converse hi-tops. I am a big fan of “The Threepenny Opera” but I am kind of tired of that raccoon eyes and torn fishnets look even for the tackier denizens of Brecht’s imaginary Victorian London, let alone for Shakespearean fairies.
Also, Cobweb is not a major role. Were we to be treated to a whole phalanx of tawdry tinkerbells? Was Murphy the only person available for the photo shoot? I found the photos off-putting rather than enticing. They confused rather than clarified what I might see at the theatre.
Now that I have seen the production, the photos make perfect sense and do accurately represent director Ryan Howe’s vision, but I still don’t think they make good advance press for the show. The photos sexualize what is actually a squeaky clean and family friendly version of “Midsummer”.
What Howe and his energetic cast of fifteen have done is pare down Shakespeare script to a tight two and a quarter hour run time and staged it on a minimal and effective set. The first few minutes, in which the costumes initially confuse and very loud rock music blares, are jarring, but then the show settles in to a smooth rhythm that is effective and efficient in its simplicity.
“Midsummer” is a complex show: Theseus, the duke of Athens (John Steffenauer) and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, (Sandra Lakatos) are about to be married. Egeus (Murphy) brings his daughter Hermia (Kate Hess) before Theseus with a complaint – he wants her to marry Demetrius (Patrick Yeoman) and she wants to marry Lysander (Justin Steeve). Both men are in love with Hermia, but her friend Helena (Marsha Harman) is madly in love with Demetrius. Lysander and Hermia determine to elope, and flee to the forest with Demetrius and Helena in hot pursuit.
In that same forest the king and queen of the fairies, Titania (Gwyn Hervochon) and Oberon (Steven Strafford) are having a spat, and a group of lug-headed local laborers – Nick Bottom (Philip Guerette), Francis Flute (Paul DiNuzzo), Snout (Melanie O’Malley), Snug (Geoffrey Waltz), and Robin Starveling (Aaron Northrup) - have gathered to rehearse “the most tragical comedy of Piramus and Thisbe” to present at Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding reception.
Murphy’s Cobweb and Eric Chase as Puck are the only common fairies in evidence, serving as Titania and Oberon’s servants respectively. Together the fairy foursome conspire to wreck mischief on each other and the hapless mortal lovers and foolish “mechanicals” who wander into the wood.
In the world that Howe, Chase as lighting designer, and Aaron C. Smith, credited with designing the sets and costumes, have created, it is easy to tell the players without a scorecard. The Athenians wear white and beige, the fairies wear red and black, and the mechanicals wear their work clothes (and yes, I did enjoy the Wal-Mart vest Bottom was sporting). The Puck and Cobweb control everything, including the music and the lights. Their presence and interference in everything inside and outside the play is positively Brechtian. You are never allowed to forget that you are an audience member watching a play presented by actors, and yet the fairies also give you a special insider’s entrée into Shakespeare’s magic.
The most brilliant change Howe has wrought is the doubling of Puck and Peter Quince. Chase makes it clear that Puck and Peter (or Peet-aire) Quince are one and the same, he is not just an actor assuming another role by putting on a different hat. In this guise Puck controls the mechanicals throughout, and his stealing away of Bottom to be Titania’s Ass and lover is just another merry prank among many that he plays.
Chase and Murphy are very lively fairy guides, and Stafford and Hervochon make believable monarchs of the fairy realm. Fairies that resemble Threepenny whores are obviously not the kind with wings and wands and pouches full of pixie dust. These are much earthier sprites.
Hess and Harman make the ditsy Hermia and the feisty Helena very much their own, but Steeve and Yeoman fail to distinguish clearly between their characters. As far as I was concerned they were just two hunky guys in khakis, nice to look at and a little loud in the fight scene.
Philip Guerette reminds me of some mid-20th century comic…is it Bert Lahr or Joe E. Brown (Lahr once accused Brown of stealing his face), or is it Huntz Hall of the Bowery Boys? To be compared to any of those three gentlemen would be both a great compliment and a terrible curse. All three were talented men who were basically trapped in goofy second banana roles by the very faces and voices that made them famous. I will be interested to return to Bakerloo next week to see Guerette in Noel Coward’s “Design for Living”. I hope his performance there proves me wrong.
While I enjoyed Guerette’s Bottom, I found the mechanicals’ scenes basically the weakest in this production. They can be absolutely hilarious, and they were only mildly amusing.
Which brings us to the really interesting subject of sex. For some unknown reason, possibly a misguided attempt to make Shakespeare hip and relevant, in 11th grade my school subjected us all to a crash course in Elizabethan obscenities. We literally were given tests in which we had to find all the phallic jokes in a passage or poem within a set amount of time. Obviously Howe did not go to the same school I did (well, it’s a girls’ school so he couldn’t have, but anyway). This is the cleanest production of “Midsummer” I have ever clapped eyes on. I kept wanting to climb up on the stage and say to the actors, “Wait, go back, didn’t you see the joke there?” Then I cursed the filthy-minded teachers who had forced me to view Shakespeare as nothing more than one long Benny Hill sketch. Then I realized that, whether you were trained to spot an Elizabethan obscenity at ten paces or not, the jokes were in there. My teachers didn’t write them, Shakespeare did. Without them the show is, pardon the pun, rather limp.
The Bakerloo mission is to “present vital, intelligent productions of Shakespeare’s canon and other classic works by serving as a home to up-and-coming theatre artists of the highest caliber. Through performance and education, Bakerloo produces high-quality, low cost, innovative theatre without pretense so that a new generation of audiences will see theatre as a dynamic, accessible and inclusive experience.”
With this mission statement printed clearly in their program, it seems important to compare the statement with the theatrical experience presented. The production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that I saw was vital and intelligent, performed by young actors whose program credits indicate that they are serious about their craft. The performance was high-quality and innovative, and the ticket prices were some of the most affordable I have seen in a long time. What seemed to be lacking was that new generation of audience, or really any audience at all. The night I attended there were maybe thirty people in the vast acreage of West Hall auditorium.
Bakerloo is a young company, in existence for a scant six years that is just finding its footing in the Capital District. Several geographic moves have not helped that process, and their new home this year at RPI is ill suited for their spare and intimate performance style. West Hall was originally built in 1868 as Troy Hospital, and RPI has launched a multiyear project to restore the exterior as the interior is being renovated to house the arts department and a black box theater. Bakerloo is obviously hoping to make that black box its permanent summer home, but this year they are performing in the cavernous and un-air conditioned old auditorium built in the mid-1920’s when the building was converted into Catholic Central High School. It feels like an old (really old) high school auditorium and makes the young performers look like school children too. To make matters worse the parking lot and entrance to the theatre are not easy to find.
I think that Bakerloo will do a better job of reaching that new generation of audience members if they fine tune their marketing and take the show on the road. Since they work with minimal sets and costumes it would be easy to tour the production into local schools, community centers, and senior centers. Or, since tickets are very affordable, to work in advance to bring groups in to see the show. More people should see the good work this company is doing, and I hope, in the future, they will.
The Bakerloo Theatre Project's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream will be performed July 29-31 and August 5 & 7 at 8 p.m., with a family matinee on August 6 at 2 p.m., in West Hall on the campus of RPI in Troy, New York. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 212-252-2947 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005