From the moment the lights come up on Theseus, Duke Of Athens (Elijah Alexander), and Hippolyta, Queen Of The Amazons (Susannah Schulman) posing in glamorous 1950s garb to the flash of paparazzi light bulbs, you know this will not be your grandfather’s, your father’s, or even your older brother’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Clearly director Mark Rucker has tricks up his sleeve, the revelation of which make South Coast Repertory’s production of William Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy something very special indeed.


Working with as brilliantly inventive a design team as can be imagined (Cameron Anderson’s scenic design, Nephelie Andonyadis’ costumes, Lap Chi Chu’s lighting, John Ballinger & Ken Roht’s original music, and Kimberly Egan’s sound design) Rucker and his stellar cast of American Shakespeareans create worlds unlike any which even the most diehard of Midsummer Night’s Dream fans have seen before.

It’s also about as accessible a Shakespeare production as you’re likely to experience, the all-American cast making the Bard’s 400-plus-year-old dialog sound at times as contemporary as what you’d hear in a Nora Ephron romcom, though with considerably higher pedigree.

It helps that A Midsummer Night’s Dream has one of the easiest to follow of Shakespeare’s plots. All you really need to know is that when Puck (servant to Oberon, King Of The Fairies) dabs a bit of magical flower juice on the eyelids of any of the dramatis personae, he or she will fall instantly in love with the very first person he or she sees upon awakening—a plot “hook” that could work just as well today as it did in Elizabethan England.

Here are the basics:


Hermia (Kathleen Early) and Lysander (Nick Gabriel) are in love, but Hermia’s imperious father Egeus (William Francis McGuire) is forcing her to marry Demetrius (Tobie Windham). Hermia’s bff Helena (Dana Green) carries a torch for ex-boyfriend Demetrius but he wants nothing more to do with her. When the quartet of mismatched lovers head off to a nearby forest, Puck (Rob Campbell) mistakenly anoints Lysander’s eyelids with magic juice, causing the young man to fall for Helena. Soon after, Demetrius gets the same magic juice applied to his eyelids (just before gazing at Helena) and Helena suddenly finds herself with a pair of lovestruck suitors and poor Hermia with none.

Elsewhere in the woods, a band of strolling craftsmen are busy rehearsing a play about Pyramus and Thisbe. When impish Puck transforms the head of their leader Nick Bottom (Patrick Kerr) into that of an ass, then applies some magic juice to the eyelids of sleeping fairy queen Titania (Schulman again), it’s donkey-headed Bottom who becomes the object of her royal affection.

Soon, Hermia and Helena are cat-fighting, Demetrius and Lysander exchanging blows, and the troupe of players donning costumes for The Most Lamentable Comedy, And Most Cruel Death Of Pyramus And Thisbe, quite possibly the most hilarious play-within-a-play you’ve ever seen, at least as performed at South Coast Rep.


Shakespeare’s “Real World” characters take on fresh new personas on the Segerstrom Stage, from Gabriel’s dorky Lysander (who enters tripping over his own feet and runs with flailing arms and legs) to Early’s sulky-turned-perky Doris Day of a Hermia to Green’s adorably gawky Helena (kissing cousin to Hairspray’s Penny Pingleton) to Winham’s rising-young-executive of a Demetrius.

As for the forest where the fairies dwell, it’s never looked or sounded quite like it does here, pulsating to the beat of Ballinger & Roht’s dance club-ready soundtrack, and starring the most fabulous Titania ever. (Think Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Cher all rolled into one statuesque, flamboyant bundle.) King to Titania’s fairy queen, Alexander’s Oberon matches her in sex appeal, as muscularly hunky a sovereign as ever was, while cocky, shirtless Puck and his lithe-bodied, scantily clad, diva-worshiping fairy band appear to have arrived from a nearby Boys’ Town tattoo parlor, as they execute choreographer Roht’s sensual, seductive dance moves to a contemporary disco beat.

In Rucker’s vision of the forest outside Athens, Puck has more than a bit of Cheech Marin (of Cheech and Chong) in him, and keeps popping out from up-and-down-and-around the proscenium to spy on those foolish mortals. Meanwhile, the fairies—Jordan Bellow, Dylan DoVale, Jaycob Hunter, Ryan Jones (First Fairy, Peaseblossom), Rudy Martinez (Mustardseed), Emmet Lee Stang (Cobweb), and their lone female member Jennifer Stang—rock-climb up to perches on the upstage wall to do their own observing pretty much non-stop, that is when they’re not swiping hats, shirts, coats, eyeglasses, and other accoutrements from the unsuspecting humans in love.

CSUF sophomore Jones, so brilliant in that school’s recent Equus, is a standout amongst the fairies, getting more lines than all the rest combined and demonstrating a particularly acrobatic agility, though the other sprites are no slouches in that department either. Stang turns sex symbol vocalist in the Act Two Scene Two “Lullaby” set to music with a seductive R&B beat by Ballinger & Roht under Ballinger’s accomplished musical direction.

Then there are “The Mechanicals,” those traveling players who in Rucker’s vision look more like a car repairman, a hardware shop employee, a general store clerk, and a rock band roadie than a band of Shakespearean clowns, and who perform their shtick and Midsummer’s play-within-a-play with the inspired panache of Sid Caesar and his Your Show Of Shows comics. In addition to the aforementioned Kerr as Bottom, SRC Founding Artists Richard Doyle as Robin Starveling and Hal Landon Jr. as Peter Quince, 38-year SCR vet John-David Keller as Snug, Michael Manuel as Francis Flute, and McGuire doubling as Tom Stout make for an absolutely sensational band of strolling players. Kerr’s extended suicide attempt in the role of Pyramus is a comic tour de force so outrageously funny that it earns the actor a huge round of applause. Failing at piercing his armor with his enormous sword, Pyramus uses it to slit his wrists, then plucks out his eyes only to pop them back in again when he realizes he’s blinded himself, and that’s not the end of it. Manuel stands out as the biggest, burliest, yet somehow still appealingly feminine Thisbe on record, and McGuire’s Wall and Keller’s Lion are comedic standouts as well.

Director Rucker treats Shakespeare’s words as contemporary dialog, resulting in as many laughs as Neil Simon at his best. There’s also a particularly inspired bit which begins when Bottom as Pyramus addresses Demetrius with “Oh night with hue so black.” Then, realizing that the role of Demetrius is being played by African American Windham, he does a double take and ends up giving Windham a knuckle bump. The occasional departure from Shakespeare earns laughs too, as when Puck makes an entrance down an aisle of the darkened Segerstrom in search of Athenians, asking those in aisle seats, “You guys Athenians?”

Alexander, Early, Gabriel, Green, Schulman, and Windham are all simply marvelous in their roles, with Gabriel once again proving himself the best around at playing cutely nerdy, and Schulman unleashing her inner diva as a Titania ready for the next White Party.

Anderson’s sets and Andonyadis’ costumes are such feats of imagination that the accompanying production stills must take the place of the thousands of words necessary to describe them, though it does “bare” mentioning that aside from the Mechanicals, most of the cast bare considerable toned flesh, the entire quartet of mortals stripped down to their underwear by the final act. Schulman gets the most gorgeous gowns and headdresses to wear, both as Titania and Hippolyta, and she wears them with glamour and flair.

Joshua Marchesi is production manager and Jamie A. Tucker is stage manager.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at South Coast Rep is a production that, were it on Broadway, would be garnering rave reviews and Tony nominations at the very least, though New York would probably insists on importing a British director for prestige value. SCR knows well that American-born can be every bit as much a class act as made-in-Britain, and Rucker (a Yale School Of Drama grad as are many of the cast) is a class act indeed. So too is A Midsummer Night’s Dream—a class act in a class by itself.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
January 31, 2011
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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