Take a superb cast and an inspired pair of directors and have them put on one of William Shakespeare’s most audience-friendly plays in the woodsy Topanga hills on a dreamy midsummer Thursday night … and you’ve got Theatricum Botanicum’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Dream_Oberon-Titania-and-Fairies No wonder the forty-year-old Los Angeles theatrical treasure has made this Shakespeare gem their signature production. No wonder Theatricum Botanicum keeps bringing back this crowd-pleaser summer after summer after summer. A Midsummer Night’s Dream enchants audiences of all ages, tickling the funny bones of children and seniors and everyone in between.

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 in a 21st Century romcom as it does in this 400-plus-year-old classic.

Here are the basics:

Dream_Lovers_1 Hermia (Emelie O’Hara) and Lysander (Max Lawrence) are in love, but Hermia’s imperious father Egeus is forcing her to marry Demetrius (Addy Stokan). Hermia’s bff Helena (Willow Geer) carries a torch for ex-boyfriend Demetrius but he wants nothing more to do with her.

Dream_Puck_3 When the quartet of mismatched lovers head off to a nearby forest, impish court jester Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck (Samara Frame) 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 known as The Rustics are busy rehearsing a play about Pyramus and Thisbe. When Puck transforms the head of their leader Bottom (Katherine Griffith) into that of an ass, then applies some magic juice to the eyelids of sleeping Titania (Melora Marshall), it’s donkey-headed Bottom who becomes the object of her royal affection.

Soon, Hermia and Helena have their claws out, Demetrius and Lysander are exchanging blows, and the troupe of players donning costumes for The Most Lamentable Comedy, And Most Cruel Death Of Pyramus And Thisbe.

Dream_Helena-and-Demetrius_2 Fortunately for all concerned, all’s well that ends well—with a trio of blissful couples united in the play’s romantic finale—all of this co-directed for the second year in a row by cast members (and Theatricum Botanicum perennials) Marshall and Geer.

No set design is necessary for this Midsummer Night’s Dream, the hills and trees surrounding the Theatricum Botanicum stage providing the picture-perfect outdoor setting under the starry sky above.

Marshall and Geer fill the stage with Amazons (Charlotte Bailey, Tanya Edwards, Gabrielle Lamb, and Chynna Skye Pozzere), Lords (Timothy McCray, Nick Molari, and Greg Steinbrecher), Fairies (Claire Andrew, Lily Andrew, Jessica Butenshon, Sierra Rose Friday, Tori Gaines, Lorelei Leary, and Ava Scaturro), and one Changeling Child (Wren Scaturro), making this as epic a Midsummer Night’s Dream as you’re likely to see this or any midsummer night.

Add to the above terrific performances by Judy Durkin (First Fairy), John Maidman (Philostrate), understudy Syd Mason (Hyppolyta), Mark Motyl (Egeus), and JB Waterman (Theseus) and you’ve got a solid team of actors supporting the production’s stellar leads and a delightfully comedic troupe of Rustics.

Anchoring the evening’s magic is the charismatic Frame, as thoroughly plucky, prankish, puckish a Puck as they come.

Among the lovers, Geer’s gloriously, scene-stealingly geeky Helena is one of the evening’s two standout performances, but the dashing Lawrence, the spunky O’Hara, and the gallant Stokan are none of them slouches in the romcom department, and when Geer meets O’Hara in the evening’s requisite catfight and Lawrence dukes it out with Stokan, the sparks get to flying fast and furious indeed.

Dream_Titania_2b Dream_Oberon_1
Director Marshall doubles regally as Titania opposite Michael McFall’s majestic Oberon, with Nicole Pacent’s Mustardseed, Sarah Sumner’s Cobweb, and Justin Woodford’s Peaseblossom making for a trio of ever so enchanting lead Fairies.

Dream_Bottom Last but not least, there are The Rustics, headed by the divine Griffith, gender-bending in a tour-de-force star turn as company leader Bottom (who portrays Pyramus in Midsummer Night’s Dream’s play-within-the-play and shows us that he is ready to undertake any and all roles at once).

Dream_Rustics Giving Griffith a run for her money are supporting Rustics Kevin M. Connolly’s Snout (a droll Wall in Pyramus And Thisbe), Charles M. Howell IV’s Starveling (a marvelous Moonshine), Michael Miranda’s Snug (the cuddliest Lion since Bert Lahr), Marcelo Olivas’s Quince (trés amusant as the lead Mechanical), and Robert Paterno’s Flute (simply delicious in blonde mop wig).

How much of Shakespeare’s dialog whooshes over your head will depend on how attune you are to the Bard’s brand of English, but cast members (Geer and Griffith in particular) go a long way towards making iambic pentameter sound as conversational as Shakespeare can get.

Especially audience-pleasing are the physical comedy elements added by directors Marshall and Geer, whether it’s the very athletic work being done by the four young lovers or the inspired theatricality of The Rustics, never more so than in the laugh-out-loud hilarious “Most Lamentable Comedy And Most Cruel Death Of Pyramus And Thisbe” that makes up much of Act Two.

Costumer Katherine Crawford has designed some splendid Elizabethan garb, with special snaps for Fairies’ costumes and makeup. Sound designer Ian Flanders has created an enchanting live musical underscoring and various magical effects. Lighting designer Zach Moore gets to strut his magic-making stuff now that A Midsummer Night’s Dream has moved into its midsummer night slot.  (Note: Production stills taken in daylight can only hint at the nighttime magic.)

Elna Kordijan is stage manager and Crystal Clark assistant stage manager. Lauren Tietz is lighting assistant.

It took this reviewer far too long to finally discover the enchantment of a midsummer night at Theatricum Botanicum two summers ago. Having now experienced my first Shakespeare play there, it’s become crystal clear why audiences have been driving up into the hills halfway between the Pacific Ocean and Woodland Hills since Theatricum Botanicum’s maiden season way back in 1973. Summer Shakespeare doesn’t get any better than this.

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga.

–Steven Stanley
August 1, 2013
Photos: Ian Flanders

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