Sunday, July 26, 2009

Theater review: Shakespeare fest's 'Midsummer' shows company comfortable in new home

The Rude Mechanicals, in Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival's
A Midsummer Night's Dream.

By Hap Erstein

As it turns 19, the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival eases into its new home, the Seabreeze Amphitheatre at Jupiter’s Carlin Park, and it also eases into a more relaxed style of performing the Bard’s work.

Earlier in its history, the Festival would reflexively select an exotic geographical setting or perhaps an unexpected time period in which to set its play. The approach would occasionally succeed, but just as often not and the pop culture ploy rarely added much to the play’s meaning.

Now the troupe is revisiting A Midsummer Night’s Dream after an attempt early in the company’s history that was shrouded in a Robin Hood theme, based on the then-current Hollywood take on the English folk hero. The new production, which plays through tonight, has no such directorial gimmicks, but instead puts its emphasis on Shakespeare’s words and the show is better off for it.

As usual, the Festival players are a ragtag group consisting of classically trained professionals, less experienced amateurs and student novices. Nevertheless, this Midsummer is reasonably well-spoken, clearly presented and it looks quite attractive on the Seabreeze stage, which allows more lighting options than the company had previously.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a crowd-pleasing hodgepodge of Shakespeare’s favorite comic devices. It has matched and mismatched lovers, fantasy characters with mystical powers and a touch of mistaken identity, but almost none of the dark underside that he often tossed in.

Structurally, it rotates among three groups. There are four young romantics who all get realigned with the application of a magic potion. There is a band of bumbling tradesmen, the so-called Rude Mechanicals, who are preparing to perform the “most lamentable” tale of star-crossed Pyramus and Thisbe at the wedding of Athenian Duke Theseus and his captured bride-to-be, Amazonian Queen Hippolyta. And then there are assorted fairies, led by the royals, Oberon and Titania, and the mischievous Puck.

Shakespeare juggles all three story threads with agility, bouncing among them skillfully, and director Kevin Crawford keeps pace, moving the action along crisply and with uncluttered stage traffic management.

Any production of the play necessarily has to choose which of the three storylines to emphasize and Crawford seems to have wisely selected the quartet of lovers. Or maybe it comes off more vividly, thanks to fresh-faced, twinkle-eyed Mary Stucchi as Helena, who soon becomes the obsession of both Lysander and Demetrius. As Lysander, Andrew Rinehart grows in the role once a love potion turns him giddy.

Based on audience reaction, the Mechanicals’ broad comedy proved popular, though a bit too one-note hammy for my taste. As fledgling actors in the play-within-the-play, the group allowed Shakespeare to satirize some of the more extreme performance habits of his own troupe, as Crawford’s exaggerated histrionics as weaver Nick Bottom suggest. He brays with the best of them when transformed into a jackass -- literally -- to become the romantic target of Titania.

Pierre Tannous draws laughs in the role of the female Thisbe, though it is never clear whether his errant acting is intentional or not. And Seth Trucks is fitfully amusing as Snout the tinker, who is assigned the role of a wall between Tannous and Crawford.

Technical director Daniel Gordon contributes an ethereal multi-level, hill-and-cave set design, well complemented by his colorful lighting. As it moves out of its teens, the Palm Beach Shakespeare Company is growing in confidence, which can only be helped by its new outdoor facility.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival, Seabreeze Amphitheatre, Carlin Park, A1A and Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Final performance tonight at 8 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Admission: Pay What You Will. Call: (561) 575-7336.

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