Midsummer Shakespeare in the Cemetery

A Midsummer Night's Dream
by William Shakespeare
a kate west review
directed by Chrisanne Blankenship
a Tall Blonde Productions and Hollywood Forever Production
at Hollywood Forever Cemetery
6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038
running August 10 - September 2, 2007, Fridays and Saturdays
contact http://shakespeareinthecemetery.com/; tix $20; free parking

One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a fantastical light summer faire, often done, and often a sure bet with audiences. Los Angeles' newest outdoor theatrical venue, Shakespeare in the Cemetery, does indeed offer a much more entertaining follow-up to its previous flawed production of "Hamlet". Originally set in Athens, Greece, in this version of "Midsummer" the players frolic New Orleans style, thanks to a jazzy soundtrack, Edgar Revilla's fun and flirty southern costuming and a set that looks like a cross between a Louisiana mansion and Athenian pillars.

The story primarily concerns two pairs of lovers who ultimately find happiness with each other in spite of all the obstacles they are constantly faced with, both real and supernatural. Lysander (Ryan Pfeiffer) and Hermia (Italome Ohikhuare) love each other but Hermia's father Egeus (Royce Thomas Johnson) and the royal powers that be will not allow them to marry. Instead, Hermia is supposed to marry Demetrius (Michael Perl) but Helena (Katharine Brandt) is apparently the one who truly loves him. They all run off into the enchanted forest where they run into fairies and midnight magic. Oberon (Sean Sellars) and Titania (Brianna Lee Johnson) live there as the Fairy King and Queen and do their best to wreak mischievous havoc on their mortal visitors. Representing yet a third type of class are the Players, or Mechanicals, a group of laborers determined to present the tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisby at the Duke Theseus' (T. J. Lowther) wedding to Hippolyta (Jenny Martin). While in furious rehearsal, they end up in the forest as well, and are likewise bewitched.

This particular production is set outdoors in an actual cemetery, among deceased celebrities, including the crypt of Douglas Fairbanks. As the audience enjoys pre-show picnic dinners, fairies creep out and try to steal food. (Careful, they will also move your lawn chairs to block your fellow patrons' view.) Our next fairy encounter is with Puck (Zoe Jarman), Oberon's powerful little minion, the official first spritelike appearance in the show. She spars with rival fairy Peaseblossom (Katherine Everett) and we learn of Puck's bad boy (girl) reputation. (Director Chrisanne Blankenship casts a girl in this role, a common modern choice, making Puck more impish, and less formidable.) Zoe Jarman is a cute and peppy Puck, zipping and dancing her way in and about the grassy set in deference to Oberon's will.

Sean Sellars, as her commanding master Oberon, focuses much of his energy on being heard in the difficult outdoor surroundings and he projects quite clearly. The role is also very physical, and he spends most of the play leaping from above, crouching covertly and tussling with his fellow actors, all of which he does with finesse. Less strong is Brianna Lee Johnson (co-producer), his Fairy Queen Titania. She does not portray much character development in the role and most of her scenes are rather uninspired. Also, she is in danger of falling out of her tightly corseted bodice. In dispute over a foundling child, the couple quarrel. Oberon bids Puck to do his worst, in vengeance on Titania's defiance, the result of which Titania falls under a love spell and fawns over a half-man, half-donkey, Bottom.

Eric Hunicutt is a likeable and funny Nick Bottom, the main actor of the Mechanicals, chosen as the heroic Pyramus. During one of the rehearsals, he runs off into the forest and returns with the head of a donkey, thanks to Puck's inevitable interference. Parvesh Cheena is also likeable as Peter Quince, the leader of the group, who tries vainly to maintain order and good acting among his players. The rest of the gang, with the exception of Blake Silver's amusing high-pitched Francis Flute as the doomed lover Thisby, is a bit weaker. Also double cast as Titania's fairy crew, Alexandra Adair is Snug and Rebecca Russ is Starvelling, rounding out the players. Bottom ends up happily as Titania's love slave for a time.

Puck's manic spellbinding extends to the young lovers running amuck deep in the forest. Hermia and Lysander elope and Helena tells Demetrius, in the hopes that he will reward her with a favored glance at least. Both men are in love with Hermia, but are hexed into thinking they are both in love with Helena. Katharine Brandt (also co-producer) is an appropriately charmingly awkward and despairing Helena, although with an inexplicable costume stripping, down to her corset. Her entertaining screeching exits work well as her screams continue on after she leaves. Italome Ohikhuare is less noteworthy as Hermia, unfortunately. In the first place, she does not project at all, so many of her lines are lost and secondly, she does not seem to be having as much fun as her fellow cast members so her Hermia does not stand out. The casting of an African-American actress in the role works fine, however. Both men, Ryan Pfeiffer as Lysander and Michael Perl as Demetrius, are fine and quite amusing in their attempts to knock each other's blocks off. The physicality of the four works well.

Eventually, Oberon and Puck set everything to rights and passionate balance is restored. Titania's spell is broken and she reconciles with Oberon and the four lovers are matched up with their destined partners. The Duke and soon-to-be Duchess find them in the forest the next morning, where everyone awakes as if from a strange dream. Was it all real? Shakespeare leaves that to us to ponder. Reality rewards them all with wedding nuptials and all the counterpart pairings end well. The Mechanicals are rewarded by putting on their terrible, but hysterical tragedy. The lesson must be that love makes people blind, foolish and confused, but in spite of this, everyone manages to find romantic joy. Shakespeare's chorus of fairies are constantly amused ("Lord, what fools these mortals be!") even though they themselves are subject to love's trickery.

Director Blankenship gives us an entertaining and festive "Dream", just right for a hot summer night. The jazzy theme is fine, although some choices (such as the fairies singing "Fever") don't fit as well. The production is not an overall statement of anything in particular, but pretty fun to watch. Both audience members and actors have a good time for the most part; it's diverting to see the cast merrily point out the helicopters that pass frequently above the park, for instance. There's no intermission, but that's hardly noticeable as it's a fast-paced and well-balanced show. If you're going, don't forget to bring food, blankets and sweaters - the cemetery gets cold and damp at night!

A Midsummer Night's Dream (New Folger Library Shakespeare)

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