Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Theater feature: Shakespeare fest finds itself living a 'Dream'

Kevin Crawford and Kris Parker in A Midsummer Night's Dream.


By Hap Erstein

Eighteen years ago, the fledgling Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival first performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the crowd-pleasing comedy that the company returns to this year to inaugurate the new Seabreeze Amphitheatre in Jupiter’s Carlin Park.

“It’s unheard of for a Shakespeare company to go that long without reviving this play,” says Kevin Crawford, a founding troupe member and now its artistic director. “Statistically, about every four of five years it’s revived by most classical companies. We had such a resounding success with it in ‘91 -- it’s the only production we ever extended beyond its scheduled run -- (that) when it became apparent that there was going to be a theater built for us, we wanted to hold off doing it and save it for the new theater.”

Midsummer’s complex, but accessible, story line involves four intertwined lovers, fairy royalty that involves itself in the lovers’ romantic ardor and a group of comic artisans, one of whom is transformed into an ass by a mischievous fairy.

Eighteen years ago, Crawford was a local undergraduate student. Today, he has a doctorate in classical studies and teaches at Georgia’s Reinhardt College. Eighteen years ago, he was one of the lovers, Lysander. Today, he has “graduated” to the role of Bottom the weaver, who becomes an ass, at least temporarily.

Written in 1596, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has many of Shakespeare’s signature plot elements, and like so many of his plays, is drawn from numerous diverse sources. “It’s cobbled together,” concedes Crawford. “There’s a little bit of Chaucer in there, a great deal of medieval English myth. (Fairy Queen) Titania is mentioned in Ovid, but Oberon, her husband, is pulled from medieval French romance. So Shakespeare was throwing things into the blender as much as always.”

Despite its disparate sources, Crawford considers the play one of his Shakespearean favorites. “I think lyrically, it’s his most beautiful play. I just love it. I think it’s yummy.” (Somehow, it is comforting to know that one can go off and get an advanced degree and still describe a play as "yummy.”)

In the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival’s early history, the productions were almost invariably moved about in time or locale, often based on some pop culture hit of the moment. As Crawford reports, the company’s first go at Midsummer “was in the wake of Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood [Prince of Thieves], so we were all Sherwood Forest-y, with medieval England costumes. Very colorful, very sexy, very dark show.”

With Crawford directing, the new production tends towards time-unspecified simplicity. “We’re timeless, but not chaotic in the costuming,” he says. “You’ll see a puffy sleeve here or there, but no one could come in and say, ‘Ah, this is the mid-17th century’ or ‘Oh, the Roaring ‘20s.’ ”

Nor will the set be site-specific. Crawford calls it “a very non-realistic set. There’s not going to be an Athenian palace onstage for the first scene and then papier-mache trees get wheeled on for the forest. It’s a unit set of stairs and caves, platforms and bowers.”

Instead, the emphasis will be on the amphitheater itself, years in the planning and construction, now completed at a cost of roughly $1.2 million. Although Crawford describes the structure as “modest,” the advances for the company are considerable.

“We gained a roof over our heads, we gained indoor offices, indoor dressing rooms, prop storage,” says Crawford. “We gained overhead lighting, thanks to the overhang.” Now the actors will be covered when the inevitable summer rainstorm arises. Audience members will still need to bring umbrellas and ponchos.

The Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival could hardly complain, since they get the use of the new amphitheatre, but the county has had to eliminate its financial support of the production, which amounted to $25,000 last year. So for the first time ever, the festival will be asking for contributions from the audience, on a strictly voluntary “pay what you will” basis.

The money spent on the production has shrunk, but by being frugal, the cuts should not be visible to the theatergoers. And the play itself has plenty to recommend it. “There’s poetry, there’s a dog, there are fairies, there’s a donkey, there’s music and dance,” enthuses Crawford. “It’s got it all.”

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival, Seabreeze Amphitheatre, Carlin Park, A1A and Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Thursday-Sunday, and July 23-26. Shows begin at 8 p.m., doors open at 6:30 p.m. Admission: Pay what you will. Call: (561) 575-7336 or visit www.pbshakespeare.org.

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