"Words, words, words," is how Hamlet sarcastically describes what he's reading, and he might just as well be talking about today's impression of Shakespeare's plays.
The word's the thing; most productions and interpretations start from Shakespeare's language, shaping the cadences and teasing meaning from the now-obscure vocabulary. The UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre takes a different approach in its production of A Midsummer Night's Dream: Here's a treatment so intensely physical that the words for once seem as pretty but negligible as the dewy cobwebs of Shakespeare's enchanted forest.
Director Brent Gibbs, a faculty member, is--among other things--an expert on stage combat. You can tell. Rarely have Shakespeare's comically strife-torn lovers spent so much time being kicked in the groin, elbowed in the solar plexus, dragged across the floor and tossed down holes. Actors Sam Lofberg and Matt Bailey hit the stage with such a solid yet graceful thud that they should apply for stuntman jobs at Old Tucson. While neither they nor their love interests, Julia Tilley and Karin Hendricks, neglect their lines, their sheer physicality wrestles the dialog to the ground and pins it there, panting.
This is not a bad thing in Midsummer Night's Dream, which is from beginning to end about sexual frustration and consummation. Even more importantly, Gibbs' body-conscious approach manages to bind together the main action and the concluding play-within-a-play. That little diversion, a tragedy-turned-slapstick ineptly mounted by six hapless laborers, usually seems as irrelevant to the core story as the olio at the end of a Gaslight Theatre show. But in the UA production, it's the logical culmination of the heaving and hoisting that has gone before.
By comparison, the flitting fairies seem almost lethargic. Shakespeare, you'll recall, sends his two pairs of troubled lovers, as well as the amateur theatrical troupe, into a fairy-strewn forest, where the fairy king and queen (Sean Zimmerman and Alexis Krause) are engaged in a domestic spat. Amid the bickering, the mortals become collateral damage. At King Oberon's bidding, the mischievous sprite Puck (Nat Cassidy) makes rather indiscriminate use of some magic love juice, which leads not to the invention of soul music but to romantic confusion among the four lovers. It also causes Queen Titania to fall for Bottom (Kerry Watterson), one of the sub-amateur thespians, who has been transformed into a half-man, half-ass, as if he'd been appointed to the KXCI board.
The mountainous Watterson steals the show; half his lines are colliding impersonations of such fictitious figures as Dr. Evil and George W. Bush. The other principal actors handle Shakespeare's verse very well, although many of them pause at line endings even when the meaning wants to press on.
The look and atmosphere of this production almost make any concerns about the delivery of the text seem trivial. The audience enters the UA's Laboratory Theatre through the gnarled roots of a mossy tree, and before the play begins, fairies playfully menace the audience with spiders and snakes and rude noises and sneezes. (Let's hope you can't catch SARS from fairies.) It's an immediate, total immersion into Shakespeare's enchanted, faintly sinister world, accomplished with the help of a fairly simple but well-conceived scenic design by Ben Naasz.
Shakespeare set the action in Athens and its environs, but anytime Shakespeare chose a foreign location, all he meant was "someplace that's not quite Elizabethan England, but close." This production actually alludes to Greece without tripping over togas. Among the mortals, some of the hairstyles seem inspired by Greek antiquity, but the costumes (by Patrick Holt) are early 19th-century European; cleverly, when Benjamin Crawford as Duke Theseus strides onto the stage, he looks exactly like Lord Byron joining the fight for Greek independence in 1823.
The music associated with the Athenian mortals suggests that Zorba is drinking in a nearby taverna, where composer Mikis Theodorakis awaits his next royalty check.
The fairies, on the other hand, look like they've narrowly escaped Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book: no wings, but lots of skin barely covered by costumes seemingly made of watercolor paint.
All the elements come together nicely in this treatment of A Midsummer Night's Dream. What the production lacks in subtlety it makes up for in spirit--and spirit, in many senses of the word, is what infuses the original story.