It takes a good deal of chutzpah to chop an hour off the running time of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a great deal of talent to pull it off, a feat which Vanguard Rep has performed to perfection—and to gales of laughter—in an open-air production certain to delight audiences of all ages, and that includes Shakespearephiles-and-phobes alike.


Credit adapters Matthew Kellen Burgos and Sam R. Ross with the inspiration and director Ross with the execution of a ninety-minute Dream that whisks on by in a flash, is as easy to follow as any contemporary comedy, and features a cast of twelve (plus two) that enchant the eyes and ears and tickle the funny bone in equal measure.

Performing at the outdoor Byrnes Amphitheatre on the campus of La Cañada’s Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, Vanguard Rep trumpets their Midsummer Night’s Dream as “an irreverent reconstruction of the classic summer comedy … complete with music, laughter and pure ridiculousness … all told through the eyes of Puck.”

That this is a reconstructed Dream is evident from the get-go. Burgos and Ross have the inspired audacity to flip-flop Scenes One and Two, opening the show with Peter Quince and his madcap band of strolling players readying their adaptation of “The Most Lamentable Comedy And Most Cruel Death Of Pyramus And Thisbe,” one which we’ll later see performed a la Monty Python by this troupe of comedic whizzes.

It’s only now that we meet A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s two mismatched pairs of lovers in a scene which jettisons a good deal of exposition, the better to get the foursome off into the woods in record time.

The relative simplicity of AMND’s plot makes it one of Shakespeare’s most suitable for pruning. 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.

To go into a bit more detail:

Hermia (Elisa K. Blandford) and Lysander (Jeramy Felch) are in love, but Hermia’s imperious father Egeus (Clay Wilcox) is forcing her to marry Demetrius (Zach Kraus). Hermia’s bff Helena (Lauren Dobbins Webb) 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 (Jason Vizza) mistakenly anoints Lysander’s eyelids with magic juice, causing the young man to fall for Helena. Soon after, Demetrius gets the same love 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, Quince (Matthew Burgos) and his band of strolling craftsmen are busy rehearsing their play about Pyramus and Thisbe. When impish Puck transforms the head of their leader Nick Bottom (David Ross Paterson) into that of an ass, then applies some magic juice to the eyelids of sleeping fairy queen Titania (Kirstin A. Snyder), it’s donkey-eared Bottom who becomes the object of her royal affection.

Soon, Hermia and Helena are cat-fighting, Demetrius and Lysander exchanging blows, the troupe of players donning costumes for their hilarious play-within-a-play, as we in the audience enjoy our very own early summer dream of an evening under the La Cañada Flintridge stars.

Even more than usual, this particular Midsummer Night’s Dream belongs to Puck, the charismatic, multitalented Vizza remaining onstage (or in its proximity) from start to finish while providing a running Flamenco-tinged soundtrack on the acoustic guitar, his facial reactions as worthy of attention as the actions of those foolish mortals performing center stage.

The mismatched lovers couldn’t be in better hands than they are here, beginning with Blandford’s poodle-skirted Hermia who is to Webb’s nerdy Helena what Galinda is to Elphaba in a certain Broadway musical smash, prom queen vs. eternal outsider. By the same token, Felch’s Lysander is a big-man-on-campus Fiyero to Kraus’s unrequitedly lovestruck Boq. (Those unfamiliar with Wicked will just have to take my word for it that these are four absolutely delightful performances with plenty of physical comedy thrown in for good measure.)

Paterson’s sensational Nick Bottom is guilty of comic larceny, stealing every scene he’s in, first as a full-of-himself Master Thespian more than willing to undertake every single Pyramus And Thisbe role himself, then as a black-pompadoured, donkey-eared, hip-swiveling, scream-inducing Elvis of an ass (as in long-eared animal, not body part or verbal putdown).

A marvelous Matthew Burgos plays Peter Quince in auteur mode (think a younger, thinner, handsomer Francis Ford Coppola on set), supported by the equally terrific trio of Walter Wolfe (Francis Flute), Eliza Kiss (Tom Snout), and Sean F. Toohey (Snug), as hilarious a band of strolling players as you’ll see this or any Midsummer Night. (Starvling has been axed as have every one of Puck’s fairy attendants.)

Wilcox and Snyder double splendidly as Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania, the Rubenesque Snyder making for a particularly fabulous romantic comic foil for Paterson’s Bottom (in donkey mode).

A pair of unbilled teen girls serve as Puck’s assistants, and they are every bit the pros that their more seasoned, credited castmates are.

The unbilled abstract scenic design is simple but esthetically pleasing, and made even more so by Ric Zimmerman’s gorgeous Technicolor lighting design. Bethany Richards’ costumes are marvels of fancy and imagination. Kudos go also to Tracey Bonner’s choreography, Jason Knox’s sound design, and Dennis Kull’s props design. Kristen Salacka is stage manager and Brent Mason scenic painter.

Plan to picnic on the hilltop lawn overlooking the San Gabriel Mountains before the show. Bring along a cushion to sit on during the performance and something warm to wear in case the night should be a chilly one (though at the performance reviewed here, my guest and I were comfortable in short sleeves throughout the evening). Mostly, be sure to make room on your summer calendar this year and next and the one after for Vanguard Rep., an exciting addition to the thriving Los Angeles professional theater scene. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing in repertory with a pair of original plays (Tragic Women and After The Autumn), to be reviewed here soon. This is ninety minutes of Shakespearean fun and frolic you won’t want to miss.

Byrnes Amphitheater, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, 440 St. Katherine Dr., La Cañada Flintridge.

–Steven Stanley
July 1, 2011

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