As great a comedy as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, it’s easy to get tired of it, if only because there are so many opportunities to do so. There’s something about Shakespeare’s fantasia of fairies, love potions, amateur thespians, and bestiality that makes it seem like there’s always someone doing it around here: SF Shakes and Contra Costa Civic Theatre last year; Center REP and North Bay Shakespeare this year, and Impact and Ragged Wing Ensemble next year.
One of the most stunning theatrical productions I’ve seen this year was Tim Supple’s Midsummer at the Curran in May, with an Indian and Sri Lankan cast performing in seven different languages. Despite some marvelous performances, SHN’s subscribers weren’t having it. Half the audience left at intermission on opening night. Maybe people were put off by the lack of subtitles, maybe they felt that there’s no point to Shakespeare in any other language, or maybe the people who signed up for Phantom and Wicked were simply the wrong audience.
There were a number of walkouts at Saturday’s opening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center, but for a different reason. Festival Opera is performing Benjamin Britten’s 1960 opera, so everyone knew they weren’t getting Shakespeare straight up. Well, almost everyone: One couple retreating at the first of two intermissions complained that when they’d seen it in April it wasn’t set to music, and the gentleman groused, “This Benjamin Britten I can live without!”
If anything, what’s surprising about the libretto by Britten and Peter Pears is how straight-up the Shakespeare is. Some scenes and characters are cut, but for the most part it’s just Shakespeare’s play, only sung — that is to say, only much slower.
The slackened pace is most noticeable in the fairy parts, which are so ethereal that they can be a drag. Countertenor William Sauerland beautifully captures the eerily womanly tones of fairy lord Oberon, but with a lifeless stage presence. Tytania’s retinue is a gaggle of girlish candy-ravers whose choruses are grating.
The pace picks up considerably for the mismatched lovers, with lively performances by soprano Stacey Cornell, mezzo Jessica Mariko Deardorff, tenor Jorge Garza, and baritone Nikolas Nackley. Bass Kirk Eichelberger as Bottom and the other laborers are awfully funny, and their play of Pyramus and Thisbe is a highlight, both for its comedy and because the musical parody of the previous century’s opera is more melodic than Britten’s otherwise atmospheric music, conducted by artistic director Michael Morgan, that generally swirls innocuously under the vocal lines. After three hours, though, it’s a long time coming.
The real magic is visual in Morgan’s production, particularly Frédéric O. Boulay’s dreamy star-chart set and co-director Mark Foehringer’s writhing dances for the fairies. Puck, a non-singing part embodied forcefully by Kurt Wolfgang Krikorian, spends much of his time flying around on a wire.
Central Works’ latest collaboratively developed play, Midsummer/4, takes the lovers’ part of the story and removes the fairies, the other characters, and the plot and conflict in the process. Chief company playwright Gary Graves’ 2002 play Every Inch a King was essentially a modern version of Lear’s daughters without King Lear. Midsummer/4 takes a similar approach, but without Hermia being promised to Demetrius but in love with Lysander, or scorned Helena’s slavish devotion to Demetrius, there isn’t much story left. What it’s replaced with doesn’t really add up to one either.
Best friends Raissa and Lena are having a weekend away in the Sierra Nevada. Unbeknownst to Raissa, Lena invited Dex, a guy she picked up at an “eyegazing party,” and Dex invited his friend Lawrence along to keep Raissa busy so he can have Lena to himself. They drink some absinthe, and next thing they know they’re falling in love with each other one minute and detesting each other the next all night long.
It’s an entertaining trifle, with some cute references to Burning Man and Yahoo! groups. What really makes it work are Jan Zvaifler’s brisk staging and strong performances from the cast, particularly John Patrick Moore as bashful nerd Lawrence. Armond E. Dorsey gives a strong sense of Dex’s superficiality and quick temper, Arwen Anderson is an amusingly ditzy Lena, and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong strikes a fine balance between wary hostility and bemused sensuality as Raissa, despite being given the most stilted speeches.
Told in “what the hell happened last night” flashback, what happened is reduced to a series of drunken hookups interspersed with cogitations on the nature of love and fairy giggles from the woods outside. It’s an interesting exercise, but it’s such a wispy premise for a play that it provides an excellent refutation to anyone who thinks Midsummer is lightweight. Seeing it reduced to so little makes you realize how much more there is to Shakespeare’s play. Maybe someone should do it.