By John Lyle Belden
There is a land of centuries-old mysteries, equal parts pagan celebration and reverent tradition working in unique harmony, where in shadowy woods the very air is sodden with magick – Louisiana.
It is in the bayou town of Athens that we find the familiar yet always fresh William Shakespeare rom-com “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” presented by Bard Fest with Arts for Lawrence in the park amphitheater behind Theater at the Fort, a production called “Shakespeare at the Fort.”
As appropriate to a free public “in the park” Shakespeare play, this “Dream,” directed by Matthew Socey, is highly entertaining regardless of if you’ve practically memorized it, or you slept through high school Lit and have only heard the title in conversation. Wendy said to me afterward that this is not only one of the best “Midsummers” she has seen, but easiest version to follow.
For those who need it, here’s the silly and overall simple plot (Cajun version): The most respected man in the Parish, Duke Theseus (Jo Bennett) and his lovely amazon, Hippolyta (Afton Shepard) are to be married, but they are first asked to settle the engagement of Demetrius (Matthew Walls) to Hermia (Maggie Lengerich) at the insistence of her mama Egeus (Sarah Froehlke) because Hermia wants to marry Lysandra (Kristie Shuh). Fair Helena (Evangeline Bouw) wishes to wed Demetrius, who is repulsed by her playing so easy-to-get. The Duke puts it all off to the wedding celebration day, and everyone agrees to disagree.
Most of the action occurs out in the spooky forest outside town.
Is that a Tulane track star at home for summer break that we see? Naw, it’s Robin Goodfellow (Diane Tsao)! One of the bayou faerie folk, that trickster Puck only answers to the local voodoo king, Oberon (Bennett), who is having some words with his queen Titania (Shepard) over the custody of a little Indian girl becoming their half-fae Changeling (Beatrice Hartz). To aid in childcare are Titania’s faeries Cobweb (Jamie Devine), Moth (Samantha Kelly), and Mustardseed (Monica Hartz).
Then, trompin’ around these woods are common folk of the Mechanical trades who wish to put on a play for the Duke’s wedding, rehearsing in secret. Exceedingly patient director Petra Quill (Chynna Fry) is staging the old favorite “Pyramus and Thisbee” starring Flute (Justina Savage) as Thisbee, Starveling (Emily Hauer) as Moonshine, Snout (Beverly Roche) as Wall, Snug (Froehlke) as a Gator, and the colorful Bottom (Kelsey VanVoorst) as Pyramus. But then, stuff happens.
A lot of stuff happens – go see the play!
The vicinity of New Orleans is a perfect setting, and not just to try out some passable Southern accents. The environment is embraced in the music used, costuming, and just the otherworldly air of the whole show. More people have watched “True Blood” and other bayou-set stories than have visited Greece, so engaging the audience is easy. The change in what kind of beast chases Thisbee works perfectly and adds to the comedy. (Fear the Chomp!) It all contributes to a flavorful comic gumbo that goes down easy.
And finally, we have a place where the Elizabethan habit of English people always saying “adieu” makes sense.
The stage would be a bit small for most serious productions, but the intimate nature of it and the surrounding lawn allows for an immersive and interactive experience. Entrances and exits are literally from and to anywhere, fairies dance with kids in the audience, and in an ingenious move, the nobles viewing the Mechanicals’ play are seated in the exact center of the audience. Rather than divide our attention at one end of the stage, they are out of the corners of our eyes, allowing us to enjoy the unintentional hilarity of the play-within-the-play on the stage, while they comment and quip like posh robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The cross-gender casting, which has become more common across all stages in recent years, feels more natural here, and non-hetero feelings add to the stress of our four mortal lovers. In a great mockery of Shakespeare-era plays having boys play women, Savage shines as (pardon if I’m wrong on personal gender) a female actor playing a man who resents having to play a woman. Fry’s Petra aside, the other Mechanicals portray rough men in a gentle art (adding to comic potential).
The double-casting of Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta is good as it always is in bringing a unity to the overall play, but largely stopping there avoids audience confusion. (Since we never see them in the same room, perhaps they are secretly the same entities? Voodoo works in mysterious ways.)
The whole cast, top to Bottom, are exceptional – which is praise I often heap on every one of these actors individually in practically everything they do. And to that I’ll add Guy Grubbs as Theseus’ servant Philostrate, whose every entry is a punchline.
The above aside, I’ll toss my text roses at the wonderful surprise that is 7-year-old Beatrice Hartz. Anyone who saw the advance photos of Shepard holding the Changeling as just promotional can be forgiven (if I can be) for thinking her just a dancing prop in the play. With the assurance of her mother in the cast (and her father and a best friend in the front row opening night), she flits her way into and out of her every scene and cue like a pro. Her confidence radiates, and feeds into her character as the fellow fae play along. In this world, she will be become a power to rival her sitters, so it adds meaning as she literally calls their dances at one point, and when she places her hand before a character in a “halt” gesture (which is obeyed) we almost feel the invisible door close. She even gets to speak a line.
Classic with a twist? A drug-induced fever-dream by Tennessee Williams? However you think of it, the price is right – free, but please “buy” $0 tickets online for headcount. While the content is family friendly and the site is easy to reach, do note a few things. The weather is Louisiana-like with high heat and humidity, so shading, sunscreen, and hydration are advised as the play starts before sundown. A couple of food trucks are nearby, and picnics are OK. Bring your own lawn chairs, or sit on a blanket. And in these intimate confines the company goes old-school with no microphones on actors. Fortunately, most lines seem to be uttered in an excited state, but a little audience noise discipline, extending to the nearby swings, would be appreciated.
Performances are just this one weekend: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22; Saturday, July 23; and Sunday, July 24; at the small park behind Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (far north end of Indy’s Post Road). Tickets and info at indybardfest.com and artsforlawrence.org.