A Midsummer Night’s Dream Enchants Griffith Park

From left: Julia Aks, Kelsey Porter, Lovelle Liquigan, Mary Claire Garcia, Ashley Nguyen & Melissa Chalsma

What revels are in hand in Griffith Park this summer? An abundance of mirth, merriment, mischief, and magic, all part of Independent Shakespeare Co.’s 2012 summer of Free Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale are currently running in rep and A Comedy of Errors will be added to the schedule in August. These are summer pleasures that are sure to resonate with Angelenos if the opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is any indication of what’s to come.

Throughout the evening I was continually delighted by the actors’ choices and how thoroughly they mined the depths of the text to find unexpected richness in the words; to find humor in the most overlooked lines, thereby elevating them to greater purpose. Melissa Chalsma, who directs the play, as well as playing Titania & Hippolita, has drawn fresh interpretations of these familiar characters from the ensemble making it all the more appealing to those who have seen Midsummer before. 

As in many of Shakespeare’s plays, worlds collide in the woods. Lovers flee, fall under a magical spell, awake to an altered reality, and are plagued with problems before all is put right by journey’s end. A band of amateur players who wish to perform their play before the Duke meet to rehearse with comical unforeseen consequences. And a fairy queen defies her king, angering him enough to charm her so she falls in love with a mortal turned ass. All manner of confusion and hilarity ensue in this midsummer night in the forest, while fairies frolic, play tricks, and make music.

The acting is terrific from top to Bottom. Lysander (André Martin) and Demetrius (Erwin Tuazon) come to hilarious blows in their pursuit of the fair Helena (Aisha Kabia), who can’t understand how she has gone from being spurned by one man to being pursued by two, much to her friend Hermia’s (Mary Guilliams) dismay. Each is a priceless reminder that the course of true love never did run smooth but it sure does run funny when lovers don’t get their way.

Much of the success of Midsummer rests with Bottom and his band of rude mechanicals. I have oft been disappointed when they are presented as simply over-the-top two-dimensional caricatures for they are the heart of the working class and it is the honesty in their intentions that is so endearing and also so very comical.

Danny Campbell as Bottom

Happily, a more lovable bunch of rustics you’ll never find than Danny Campbell and his fellow players: Xavi Moreno (Flute the bellows-mender), Richard Azurdia (Snug the joiner), Thomas Ehas (Robin Starveling, the tailor), Jon Michael Hickenbottom (Snout, the tinker), and Bernadette Sullivan (Peter Quince, the carpenter). Campbell beams as Sullivan gives out the parts for their play, Pyramus and Thisbe, and like an overgrown child he’s ready to jump in and play them all. You can’t help but smile at his exuberance and the look on Sullivan’s face is priceless every time. When Titania (Chalsma) falls in love with him, thanks to Oberon’s (Luis Galindo) prank, it is a delightful comedy of errors made even funnier by their mismatched appearances.

Mischief, thy name is Puck, and Sean Pritchett makes a gleeful trickster. Part rascal – part imp, he races through the audience at breakneck speed, dodging and winking, bare-chested and full of bravado but always with a measure of playfulness in tow.

Caitlin Lainoff‘s cut-out set with its many frames and openings adds a lighthearted visual for the intersection of the two worlds. Costume designer Garry Lennon contrasts the modern day clothing of the mortals with the Renaissance garb of the fairies in a nod to Shakespeare, who is credited as the first English literary figure to give fairies a voice by having them occur as characters.

For this troupe of players, it’s all about connecting with the audience. The staging often takes the actors out among them with the audience becoming actively involved in the fun. Watching them interact I could see how essential this kind of dialogue is to the members of our extended theatre community. On stage and off, every age and ethnicity can be found. What an inspiration for a student to see themselves reflected in the faces of the actors in front of them. I can’t help but think that has the power to open up a new world to them even as it entertains.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the audience had to say when I asked them what they thought of the show.

At intermission, first timer Oliviana Halus Griep said, “It’s really, really fun. I like it and it’s all really funny, and I understand it. I’m glad we came!” And her mom Evelyn Halus (also a first timer to the Griffith Park Shakespeare Festival) added, “I’m having a blast. I’m amazed at this beautiful setting and the talented performers onstage.”

7 year old Cooper said, “I liked all of it” and mom Mehee said, “This is our first time in Griffith Park seeing it and I thought it was terrific. It was really professional and they did a nice job making it really entertaining for kids.”

Another first time couple, Sharon and Alan Solomon, drove up from Manhattan Beach after reading about the festival in the LA Times. Sharon said, “I love it! It’s really high quality. I can’t believe all the actors can throw their voices all the way back here. The acting and the directing are really wonderful.” I asked her if they’d seen Midsummer before and she smiled, “Oh, many times. I’ve seen fancier and I’ve seen more primitive and I think that this is the perfect kind of show in the perfect environment.” Alan agreed. “They know where they’re doing it and they’re making it immensely enjoyable. There’s a lot of talent running around up there.”

And when I asked them what made them decide to drive up all the way from Manhattan Beach Sharon had the perfect answer, “It’s summer. It’s Shakespeare. It’s free!”

One 10-year old boy who wanted to remain anonymous said, “It was AWESOME. I liked the dance-off best.” (You’ll have to come see for yourself what he means by the dance-off!)

Writer and educator Ramon Sanchez said, “I’m enjoying this show, particularly Danny Campbell as Bottom the Weaver. He was Falstaff last year in Merry Wives of Windsor and he was great in that play too. The technique is great because they’re using language to create moments so they can just be in the moment in a way that invites the audience in to have fun with it. I did this show in college – I was Francis Flute – and I’ve seen a dozen or so productions of it and I like what they’re doing. I like the direction of it and I love their vocal technique. You can hear their voices bouncing off the rock walls behind the audience.”

Will Ahrens said, “I appreciate that they put reason over rhyme in the telling of the story so that everyone can appreciate it. They make sure they use a physical point in case you didn’t totally understand the dialogue. And I like their different interpretations of how a line can be read that is still true to the character and the story but it doesn’t have to be this straight thru line. They can add to and augment the characters by what they do. Puck did it when Lysander started to wake when he said, ‘Please wake when I come again.’ Usually it’s read straight through but he did it like, ‘Wake’ and Lysander started to wake up, and then it was (no not now), “when I come again.” I love those kind of things because life is like that.”

Repeat audience member Steve Gabel said, “It’s fantastic. I think this is Shakespeare’s best work. I like Shakespearean comedies and I could see Midsummer maybe a couple more times this summer. I came to all three productions last year and I would urge people to come early in the season when the crowds might be a little smaller. The end of the season they get really large so come early.”

14-year old Juliana was among the last lingering families to leave the park and I think she may have summed it up best, “I pretend I’m one of the fairies and it makes me really happy. I’m coming back with my friends next week!”

Mission accomplished. Out of this wood we do not desire to go.

Independent Shakespeare Co.’s season runs through September 2nd. For a complete show schedule go to www.iscla.org.

Photo credit: Grettel Cortes Photography


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