The mingled sounds of poetry and laughter rang through The Arboretum on Wednesday night as SummerFest opened its season of outdoor theater with Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. This play always seems to thrive in an outdoor setting, with audience and actors alike enjoying a warm summer evening surrounded by nature.
This enjoyable production of the familiar classic was directed by one of the region's foremost Shakespearean actors, Adam Luckey, and although I found myself wondering what he might have done with the roles of Oberon or Demetrius, his marshaling and blending of the various talent and experience levels in his cast was admirable.
His energetic staging used well the many levels of Dathan Powell's rustic-looking set, warmly lit in saturated colors by Danny Bowling, and more important, illustrate the intertwining stories of the lovers, the clowns and the fairy kingdom.
The heart of this play is the romantic intrigue among the four lovers: Lysander and Hermia (Chris Floyd and Kim Dixon), and Demetrius and Helena (William Drane and Meredith Crutcher).
All four bring individuality to their parts and interact robustly, especially in the show-stealing cat fight between Dixon and Crutcher. Floyd stands out in the cast for his ease with Shakespeare's language, making clear sense of it for the audience, and allowing his characterization to flow unimpeded by the poetry.
The other real standout in this production is Eric Seale as Bottom, the self-indulgent amateur actor who is magically transformed into a braying donkey as a prank. He fills the part with bluster and bravado and manages to play the fool with likeable warmth.
Jacob Karnes as the hapless amateur director Quince gives Seale a lot to play off of, presenting Quince like an overwrought character in a Christopher Guest film.
The fairy world, costumed imaginatively by Kirsten Aurelius, gives this play its special flavor, although in this production, that magic is muted by a couple of ambivalent performances.
As Oberon, the narcissistic and despotic king of the fairies, Matt Seckman comes across as sullen and undemonstrative. This passive-aggressive approach to the role does not work; it gives his fairy henchman, Puck (Joe Fields-Elswick), little impetus to do his bidding. The kinetic Fields-Elswick sometimes seems lost for motivation, therefore, because the crackling energy of the dominant/submissive relationship with Oberon is so muted.
On the other hand, Bianca Spriggs as Titania, the fairy queen, radiates an earthy regality, and the poetry springs off her lips fluently and communicatively as if she had written it herself (Spriggs herself is an accomplished poet).
Dealing with the Bard's complex and beautiful poetry as dialogue between characters in a story is a challenge for modern actors and audiences. This production confronts that challenge with a wide range of skill levels and expected mixed results. It takes a great deal of technical mastery to keep passages of rhymed couplets from sounding sing-song, and the high-flown language can sound artificial coming from actors trained in a much more prosaic culture: My companion at the play called it "that 'I am acting' tone."
Also, in an effort to keep the progression of the intermingled stories clear, this production sometimes does not slow down enough to give the passages about love and nature the lyrical breadth they require.
These quibbles aside, my companion had never seen A Midsummer Night's Dream, and based on this production definitely wants to see it again. Who cares about the critic's picky complaints? The crowd loved it.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musician, theater artist and lecturer at the University of Kentucky.