The Great River Shakespeare Festival kicks off its eighth season with A Midsummer NIght’s Dream, directed by Alec Wild. The play is one of Shakespeare’s most delightful, combining romance, fantasy, and lots of humor — the laugh-out-loud kind. This production is among the best yet.
The Duke of Athens is planning his nuptials with Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. His army has conquered hers, and he has brought her to Athens as a war prize. As you might imagine, there isn’t much affection on her part at first. Meanwhile, Egeus comes calling to prevail upon the Duke to pass judgment on his daughter, Hermia, who won’t marry the man her father wants her to — Demetrius — but is in love with Lysander. The Duke pronounces that she must marry her father’s choice or be put to death or sent to a nunnery for the rest of her life.
Hermia and Lysander run away to the forest, and are joined by her best friend Helena. They are followed by Demetrius, who loves Hermia, but is loved by Helena. Sounds confusing, but in the play it is not at all. In the forest live the king and queen of the fairies — Oberon and Titania — plus any number of fairies and sprites, among which is Puck, Oberon’s impish servant, and the character who sets the magic in motion and moves the play along. Puck and Oberon scramble the mortals’ love quadrangle while playing a hilarious prank on the recalcitrant Titania.
In addition to the lovers and the fairies is a group of craftsmen, all friends, who are determined to put on a play — Pyramus and Thisbe — in honor of the Duke’s wedding to Hippolyta. This play-within-a-play is the main source of the laugh-out-loud humor. After a great deal of magic, mistaken identity and fast-paced action, all ended well, and the audience, well-pleased, jumped to a standing ovation.
I sat next to an older woman on one side who said after the play that she had seen a lot of Shakespeare, and this production was “three times as good as any other!” She was with a tour group who all enjoyed themselves immensely. On the other side was a young woman, alone, who told me, “I didn’t expect this to be so great!” She was from Maryland originally, now working as a nurse in Janesville, Wisconsin. She wanted to see Minnesota (she said people in Wisconsin told her she’d have to go way up north to see anything worthwhile!) and picked Winona because it was close. She noticed there were a couple of theaters, and that GRSF was performing, so decided to give it a try. She was extremely impressed and I’m sure will take the word back to Janesville that Winona has it all.
The production has a definite GRSF stamp on it — largely unadorned stage, much athleticism on the part of the actors, and wonderful costumes. The audience sits down to a stage mostly bare but for the trademark large round elevated platform, around which is a large steel enclosure that can be moved about the circumference of the platform on a track.
The play opens on the court of the Duke, where all the characters are dressed in dark, somber colors, the metal enclosure seeming a cage that holds the Duke’s court in check. Theseus pronounces Hermia’s fate, Hippolyta leaves the room in disgust, and the lovers run to the forest. The mechanicals — craftsmen — then enter the stage, and suddenly the set doesn’t seem so stark. The metal enclosure becomes less cage and more lead frame to a stained glass window, through which we view the colorful slapstick action.
When the fairies appear, the enclosure becomes a kind of jungle gym on which the fairies cavort. The set takes on the dappled light of deep woods and Titania, the fairy queen, is borne in on a sort of palanquin in the shape of a crescent moon. The fairies, unlike the mortals, are decked out in multi-colored fantastical costumes, each with a stylized set of wings, making them look like brightly dressed slinkies moving about the stage. They are accompanied by offstage music, and sing magical songs to their queen — wonderful music being another mark of a GRSF production.
As the older woman next to me proclaimed, “Every actor was strong, not a weak performance among them!” GRSF fans will recognize some of their favorites in the cast, most notably Tarah Flanagan as a perfect Puck, who at the end reminds us that this was only a play, a dream, as she sends us on our way. Kate Fonville as Hippolyta/Titania and Corey Allen as Theseus/Oberon were delightful. Stephanie Lambourn, Evan Fuller, Andrew Carlson and newcomer Kim McKean were perfect and comic young lovers. The mechanicals were hilarious as performed by Chris Mixon, Michael Fitzpatrick, Christopher Gerson and David Coral with newcomers Brian White and Christopher Sheard. The fairies amazed us with their music and movement — Doug Scholz-Carlson, Ryan Fonville, Ricardo Birnbaum, Greg Beam and Katie Bowler. And little Nico Stern drew a unanimous “Aww, he’s so cute!” from the audience.
This is a must-see production, one people will be talking about for a long time. I know I’ll want to see it again this season.