No set, no frills, the original script cut by more than half, and abundant imagination and flair add up to quite possibly the shortest and without a doubt one of the most entertaining Midsummer Night’s Dreams in the four-hundred-twenty or so years since those foolish mortals first ventured into the woods, sixty-five minutes of madcap Midsummer 2014 magic courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.
For a company that specializes in fun-and-gore extravaganzas with titles like Urban Death, Blistered Hands And Bloody Mouths, Whore’s Bath, and Attack Of The Rotting Corpses, a Shakespeare romcom might seem a curious programming choice, but think again. This is, after all, the same troupe of theater artists who gave L.A. shortened adaptations of Richard III, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet, the latter of which scored A Noise Within’s Rafael Goldstein an LADCC Lead Actor nomination.
Directed and adapted by Denise Devin with the same imagination and panache she brought to ZJU’s A Christmas Carol this past December, A Midsummer Night’s Dream à la Zombie Joe’s strips Shakespeare’s plot down to basics, yet despite radical cuts (or perhaps because of them) ends up as comprehensible as any Shakespeare play I’ve seen—and that’s already saying something.
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 assorted 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.
Our romantic leads are Hermia (Arielle Davidsohn) and Lysander (Robert Walters), madly in love despite the insistence of Hermia’s father Egeus (Sarah Fairfax) that she marry Demetrius (Dorian Serna) against her wishes, and Hermia’s bff Helena (Nicole DeCroix), carrying a torch for an ex-boyfriend—Demetrius—who wants nothing more to do with her.
When the four mismatched lovers head off to a nearby forest, impish court jester Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck (Katherine Bowman) 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.
Meanwhile elsewhere in the woods, a band of strolling craftsmen known as “The Mechanicals” find themselves busy rehearsing a play about Pyramus and Thisbe to be performed for royals Theseus and Hippolyta (Lamont Webb and Ashley Fuller).
When Puck transforms the head of Mechanicals’ leader Bottom (Quinn Knox) into a donkey’s, then applies some magic juice to the eyelids of sleeping Titania (Fuller), wife of Oberon (Webb), lo and behold it’s ass-headed Bottom who becomes the object of her royal affection.
Soon, Hermia’s and Helena’s claws are out, Demetrius and Lysander are exchanging blows, and the troupe of players have donned costumes for The Most Lamentable Comedy, And Most Cruel Death Of Pyramus And Thisbe.
Fortunately for all concerned, all’s well that ends well—with a trio of deliriously happy couples united in the play’s romantic finale and an equally blissful audience out of the theater hardly more than an hour after the whole shebang began.
Devin’s stripped-down prologue quickly introduces the two mismatched couples, Hermia’s imperious dad, and Theseus and Hippolyta (whose appearances bookend the plot), along with strolling Mechanicals Bottom, Flute (David Wyn Harris), Snout (Melissa Virgo), Snug (Emily Cunningham), and leader Peter Quince (Fairfax).
Then we’re off to the forest with our quartet of young lovers getting grimier by the second as their clothes fall to shreds, Bottom finding himself sporting a donkey’s head, and Titania, Oberon, and their accompanying fairies Cobweb (Virgo), Moth (Cunningham), and Peaseblossom (Harris) getting funky and fabulous with full-length renditions of the ‘70s hit “Mr. Big Stuff” and the Motown classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
With more than half the cast playing multiple roles, plenty of physical comedy (high-energy chases and one rip-roaring cat fight), and a general atmosphere of abandonment and frolic, ZJU’s Midsummer Night’s Dream provides more laughter and entertainment value in a single hour than any I’ve seen.
Admittedly, not everyone in the cast is as proficient at iambic pentameter as actors you might see at The Old Vic, but each and every one plays his or her part with such energy and pizzazz, there’ll be no quibbling here.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s The Mechanicals who prove the evening’s biggest scene stealers, Cunningham, Harris, and Virgo playing with contagious delight not just would-be actors but play-within-the-play characters but ever-so-quirky fairies as well, while Fairfax makes one of the evening’s best and strongest impressions as both the autocratic Egeus and the considerably daffier Quince.
Davidsohn, DeCroix, Serna, and Walters make for a quartet of winning young lovers, Fuller and Webb are a striking pair whether mortal or fairy, and Bowman effervesces as Puck in addition to her brief, quirky cameo as a bearded Philostrate.
Last but not least, with eyes and cheekbones that could easily grace the cover of Asian GQ, Knox might not be your typical Bottom, but this is just one reason his casting proves inspired. Not only does the L.A. newcomer’s comedic flair make his “Master Thespian” take on Bottom a sheer delight, plop a donkey head atop his shoulders and you’ve got an ass that no fairy Queen could resist.
As befits a Zombie Joe’s Underground Production, scenic design is as minimal as it gets, cut-out stars adorning the walls sufficing to transform ZJU’s mini black-box into wherever our imagination (and Devin’s terrifically imaginative costume design) takes us.
Additional program credits go to Angelia Weitzman (stage manager, scenic designer, and director’s assistant), Jeri Batzdorff (donkey head, lion head, and scenic artistry), R. Benjamin Warren (column and curtain design and construction), and Davidsohn (love juice flower & moon extraordinaire creation).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is produced by Zombie Joe himself.
Unfortunately for L.A. theatergoers wishing to replicate this reviewer’s sixty-five minutes of joy and delight, A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s all-too-brief seven-performance-only run has come to an end, a sad-but-true fact that prompts me to offer the following suggestion:
Like Devin’s A Christmas Carol, set to return in time for Holiday Season 2014, Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group might well consider making A Midsummer Night’s Dream an annual tradition.
This is Shakespeare that even a hater can love.
ZJU Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
August 15, 2014
Photos: Zombie Joe’s Underground