A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Admittedly it can be easy for theatre reviewers, a dedicated but misunderstood lot, to face a kind of Shakespearean burnout over the summer months, as indubitably there’s even more Bard to look for tooling around our town these days than there are celebrities driving under the influence. Because of that rather exclusive circumstance, any professional theatergoer can all but spout the lines of each play as “trippingly on the tongue” as the actors performing the roles.
Salvation often comes from just how inventively the productions can be re-envisioned, often altering the setting of one of the well-known 500-year-old works of the prolific old Will to be performed among movie star crypts in cemeteries, Fonzie-style in convertible cars, at a circus where the actors only use American Sign Language or, more often than not right now and with more scary parallels to our species’ history of atrocity than one might care to admit, somewhere in the heat of the Iraq war.
West Side Story notwithstanding, it’s not often that one of these enduring works can successfully be transformed into a musical entertainment, but Shakespeare Festival/LA has done just that with their uniquely imaginative jazz version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, re-imagining Athens as Los Angeles in the 1940s and that familiar enchanted forest inhabited by Titania and Oberon’s posse of woodland sprites as a “fairy land inspired by early Central Avenue.”
Opening with a sweeping full-company production number set to Lionel Hampton’s “Central Avenue Breakdown,” director Ben Donenberg, choreographer Julie Arenal, musical director Steve Pandis, and their fiercely dedicated troupe of gifted mostly African-American um-um-um attitude-laden performers, have joined forces to create a charming new dream to brighten your midsummer night.
Donenberg’s Dream is chockfull of jive-talkin’ hepcats, smoothly melodious scat singing, and features the most entertaining interpretation since the first opening night of this classic gem debuted somewhere back around 1595 or 1596 (some academics believe Dream was originally commissioned for an aristocratic wedding, while others surmise it was sanctioned by the Queen to celebrate the feast day of St. John, yet no concrete evidence exists to lend credence to either theory).
Presented under the stars on Fred Duer’s colorfully cartoonish set with costumer Fontella Boone’s breakaway bias-cut period dresses and zoot suits festooned with sequins flashing away under Trevor Norton’s atmospheric lighting, this dream Dream bestows it’s rare special treat: giving its grateful audience an opportunity to again celebrate the melodic jazz standards by Hampton, Arlen and Porter performed by a sparkling company of triple-threat performers.
The music is ingeniously integrated here, with the marvelous Anthony Manough singing Harry Woods’ “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” as he spreads Puck’s fairy dust over the play’s star-crossed lovers, played to the comedic hilt by Raina Simone Moore, A.K. Murtadha, Christopher Michael Rivera, and the amazing Raina Simone Moore, who comes up with a distinctive Eve Arden-inspired deadpan delivery for her Helena.
This manipulated quartet of soon undressed breeders anxious to get on with the spreading of their royal seed then segue into “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” while Geoffrey Owens, a surprisingly relaxed and conversational Bottom (even at one point delivering a knockout Brando imitation), warbles “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Witchcraft” to his drug-enamored Titania (J. Karen Thomas) as he wiggles his ass’ ass under the sternly watchful eye of her dashing International Male-clad Oberon (Lester Purry).
There’s surprisingly no production number to accompany the worldclass clowns who so hilariously interpret Bottom’s buffoon-like “hard-handed men of Athens” rustic cohorts (Bryan Cogman, Gregg Daniel, Fri Forjindam, Christopher Neiman, and the physically towering Brian Joseph, side-splitting when his Flute takes on the persona of a most unattractive Thisbe), but they still inspire the audience to roll on the proverbial floor during the much-loved culminating “tedious brief” and “very tragical mirth”-ridden play-within-a-play—and they get to double as Titania’s sunglass-sporting ultracool band of urban fairies, giving them all the chance to perform a terminally hip “Kiss to Build a Dream On.”
But as consistently slick as this Dream might be, credit for the delightfully refreshing rebirth of the well-known classic must go to Donenberg and Arenal, who pull together their incredibly capable cast of 13 into a formidable uniform front, each actor moving and speaking and finding their own individual comedic moments, yet with a palpable synchronized vision shared between them all. These folks are having great fun here and it could not possibly be more infections for their enraptured audience.
The first stop for SF/LA’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was the courtyard of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ austerely monolithic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, so it’s no wonder the character of the Changeling Boy was not included onstage here, his chastity possibly at risk in such a questionable setting.
After the traditional pre-show reminder about silencing cellphones and pagers, Dream director and SF/LA founder Donenberg introduced hardworking 9th district councilmember Jan Perry to welcome the revelers and tout the glories of downtown LA life. Her remarks were followed by the Archdiocese’s Monsignor Kevin Kostelnik, who consulted his notes on the usually unreported religiosity of William Shakespeare, something akin to a blatant advertisement for the Catholic Church.
It’s actually puzzling how this fact could be known in the first place anyway, since even the historic opening date of Midsummer Night’s Dream itself is up for grabs to scholars; the good Monsignor’s information must have come from divine intervention. Oh well, I guess these guys have to do something to offset a possible new $660 million mortgage on the property acquired in the last couple of weeks—or turn the place directly over to all those settlement-winning local victims of priestly…er, devotions.
SF/LA’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has now vacated the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to set up shop at the South Coast Botanic Garden through July 29; for tickets, call 213.975.9891.