Mad River Union
REDWOOD PARK – Plays in the Park’s second season of sylvan Shakespeare marks the midsummer with the Bard’s ever-popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And a sweet Dream it is under the trees of Arcata’s Redwood Park.
Making much with little, Sky Clad Theater doubles up, and sometimes triples up, its cast of 13 to flesh out 25 roles, with sometimes surprisingly insightful results.
As has been pretty standard practice since the 1970s, Duke Theseus and Oberon are played by the same actor, a masterful Kenneth Wigley who anchors the rest of the company with his portrayal of a Duke who is stern without being condescending and a fairy king who is selfish without being callous.
Wigley delivers his lines like he was raised in Elizabethan times. His stage presence is likewise natural and at ease. Wigley even manages to be deeply funny during his pantomimed exchanges with Puck (played by Chyna Leigh) without ever losing his gravitas.
As Queen Hippolyta, Kim Haile holds her own, her icy beauty and dignity a sure asset as she wordlessly expresses her disappointment in Theseus. Not even when she is playing a bewitched Titania romping with donkey-headed Bottom does she lose her sang froid.
The other anchoring performance, however, is that of Megan Johnson as the hapless Bottom (who also plays Pyramus in the play-within-a-play). Johnson conveys just the right amount of bluster as the overbearing, yet incompetent amateur actor, all the while retaining a charming vulnerability. She is very much the “everyman” of the piece, making Bottom sympathetic without glossing over his flaws. Johnson’s portrayal of Pyramus’ death scene is comedic gold.
The four actors playing the star-crossed lovers whose toils drive the play are likewise charming: Julia Hjerpe as Hermia is little yet feisty; Ethan Frank as Lysander embodies every adolescent boy in love; Thsnat Berhe puts some real force into his portrayal of the spurned lover Demetrius and Eva Brena brings more than a little sass to rejected and mocked Helena. Her delivery of some of Helena's lines sound like they came right out of an episode of Jerry Springer, and that’s a good thing.
These four actors also double as the mechanicals, which means that they are essentially tripling up as the amateur troupe performs a play within a play for the Duke. Hjerpe is a brilliantly funny Snout/Wall, Frank is perfectly over the top as Flute/Thisbe, Berhe loses his patience beautifully as the beleaguered Starveling/Moon and Brena is perfect as the retiring Snug who finds her roar as Lion.
In the plum role of Robin Goodfellow, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Chyna Leigh, who has enough kinetic energy to portray the impishness of Puck and yet is charming enough to make Puck likable. Leigh also doubles as Peter Quince, leader of the mechanicals. Unlike other actors, who make their lightning-fast costume changes offstage, Leigh transitions from Puck to Quince and back right in front of the audience. It’s a bold and interesting choice on the part of director Evan Needham, and it works. Perhaps acting, it suggests, is a fairy power, and Puck was pulling everyone’s strings all along.
Finally, Ken Klima as Egeus, Sydnee Stanton as Peaseblossom, Emily Martinez as Mustardseed, Zoe Osborn as Cobweb and Melina Ledwith as Moth round out the cast nicely. The latter four fairies are especially cute, lining up by height and otherwise delivering yet more comic antics.
The stage has moved this year to the other side of the park, next to the Redwood Lodge. On the plus side, this means that the action actually takes place under the redwoods, quite fittingly. However, trees and mulch have nice sound-dampening properties, and it was occasionally difficult to hear dialogue, especially when cars were parking nearby or children were loudly frolicking in the adjacent playground.
On the plus side, there are bleachers this year, and padded ones at that, so no need to bring your own chair. Do bring a sweater and/or a blanket, as it does get cold under the trees. Plays in the Park provides free hot beverages, hooray!
Calder Johnson, Sky Clad Theater’s executive director as well as this production’s scenic/lighting designer and builder, chose to keep the scenery and lighting simple, a wise choice in not gilding the lily. The costuming choices and designs by Marissa Menzes were subtle and effective, clearly differentiating Athenians from fairies and mechanicals.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is highly recommended for all ages, running a little over two hours with a short intermission. Admission is $12/$10 advanced (with student and senior discounts); the Dream runs Friday and Saturday evenings at 7 p.m. through Saturday, Aug. 30. Don’t miss it.