Posted by: strugglesome | September 1, 2010

You and me could write a bad romance: Maukingbird Theatre Company’s Gagarific A Midsummer Night’s Dream

There is something to be said for a comedy that includes as many characters as possible. For one thing, it’s excellent for educational purposes.  And if you are, for example, Peter Reynolds, and you wear two hats, one as the Head of musical Theater for Temple’s Theater Department AND the artistic director of Maukingbird Theatre Company, that might be part of the criteria upon which you pick a play. Not only can you experiment with one of William Shakespeare’s more heavily populated comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I have grown weary of typing that title, I’m not going to lie), but you can give your students and former students a much-needed job. In this economy, can you afford not to create a gender-bending sexually ambiguous concept Shakespeare production? I don’t think so…. So I have to applaud both Reynold’s inventiveness and his practicality, as well as his willingness to take chances. This being my third Midsummer of the season (and 100th of a lifetime), I frankly appreciated something completely different, and in that sense Maukingbird  never disappoints.

From their 2008 flagship production of Moliere’s The Misanthrope whose all male ensemble cast the classic French social comedy in a whole new light, to this year’s duo of one man shows exploring the psyches of Truman Capote and James Baldwin, Maukingbird Theatre Company has been creating theater that examines sexuality and gender in a significant and inventive way. Their latest offering, a frolicsome romp in the woods with mismatched lovers, mischievous fairies, aspiring actors and a bit of nobility thrown in for good measure, has ignored the standard formulas in favor of a new approach.

In this production, the lovers, students at Athens Academy, are more Gossip Girl then Elizabethan England, texting with every breath and slouching through the almost completely bare set with their messenger bags and plaid uniforms like extras in an episode of Glee. Defying the gender designations assigned by the bard, Lysander is played by the adorable and endearingly awkward Emily Letts, and Helena is represented by the cutely catty Patrick Joyce. As Lysander, Letts does her best to protect her Hermia (played competently if rather coolly by Erin Mulgrew) from the affections of Demetrius (the attractive but unfortunately forgettable Sean Gibson), but, of course, she’s foiled by a disapproving father (the excellent and underused Nick Anselmo) and impish fairies. Perhaps we would have gotten a better sense of the talents of Mulgrew and Gibson had we had some more time with them, but because Reynolds has trimmed this play down to a zippy hour and a half we are denied their character development in favor of a dance break. Oh, well, I suppose if you are going to go the Glee route you might as well go all the way, as this production certainly does with the final Lady Gaga themed “play within a play”, which is, well, fabulous as all hell. The credit for how entertaining the final moments of this production are lies mostly with the talented Danielle Pinnock, whose spicy and gloriously diva delivery as Nick Bottom injects an irrepressible comedy into the piece. Not only does Pinnock swan around the stage with enough energy and presence to activate a particle generator, but her playful and commanding interpretations of Shakespearean rhythms and rhyme scheme are a delight to hear. Pinnock is supported by an excellent crew of Mechanicals, from the gloriously nerdy Francis Flute (played by Temple student David Quinn) to the frazzled and firm Peter Quince (Temple student Stephanie Cryor), and while the comedy might be broad, the performance is fantastically smart and entertaining.

As Pig Iron Theater Company noted, an issue with this particular play often lies in creating the forest setting. In this case, the woods becomes a sort of mild rave with scantly hung lit cords hanging from the ceiling of an otherwise bare stage  and an atmosphere made colorful and smoky by Dom Chacon’s lighting design. While the grown ups wear tailored suits and the kids have their plaid and blazers,  costume designer Lauren Perigard has decked the fairy band from heads to toes in what looks like a clothing line marrying Dr. Who with Labyrinth, with just a dash of goth punk thrown in to spice things up. The result is a lot more kneepads, leather and nipples then I typically expect in a production of Shakespeare,  although maybe I’m not attending the right shows.

The gender bending doesn’t stop with the lovers, of course. Reynolds has also given the fairy kingdom a chance to, well, live up to it’s name (Zing! Tip your bartender).  Sean Thompson as Titania may not look like many of the women who often play this part, but he works himself into a snit with aplomb, plays the injured lover with flair and the besotted queen with skill. His counterpart, Charles Illingworth IV, is not quite at his level, and while he discharges the role adequately his stumbling prose makes it clear he is less comfortable, though whether that’s about running around the stage in a kilt and platform shoes  or wading through Shakespeare’s language I couldn’t tell you. Nevertheless, the chemistry between the two men is satisfyingly sexy and their battles and eventual reconciliation would be triumphant if only I could figure out why Reynolds decided to make Oberon and Titana both men. And that is not the only question I would ask about this production.

While the decision to change the gender roles of the lovers is an interesting one, the decision to make Oberon and Titana both men is just confusing. I can’t quite see what statement it’s making or what kind of new conclusion it draws about that couple. The push and pull of power in that relationship is what makes it interesting and adds the spark of danger to the fairy kingdom, drawing light on the manipulative nature of the fairies, underlining the darker aspects of their plots. Perhaps if Titania had been male and Oberon female, or if Puck (the impish and energetic Brent Knobloch) had be re-envisioned as a rival for Oberon’s love, or something else that might have added significance to that choice. As it stands now, it doesn’t land quite were it should, and left me conflicted rather then intrigued. Another issue that arises within this landscape of sexuality is the “Love In Idleness” flower  which Puck uses to shift the desires of Demetrius and Lysander towards Helena and away from Hermia. In this particular production this plot device becomes the catalyst for a more troubling series of questions, because, frankly,  it implies that sexuality can be altered by exterior forces. Though I guess that lets a lot of drunk college students off the hook…

All joking aside, it would be unfair to say that this is not a thought provoking production, or that it’s not fun. It’s certainly an interesting take on a well worn standard, and to say it entertains would be an understatement. It simply would have been nice if it had been a touch more thoughtfully done. The energy is clearly there, it’s just the execution that looks a touch shakily when held up to the light. But then again, that’s usually the case with dreams, isn’t it?

Maukingbird Theater Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs from now until September 12th at Temple’s Randall Theater. You can pick up tickets here.

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