Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Spoleto Update: A fantastic "Midsummer Night's Dream"

Posted By on Tue, Jun 4, 2013 at 2:30 PM

BOARD MEETING: The actors of the Bristol Old Vic perform in A Midsummer Nights Dream at Spoleto.
  • Simon Annand
  • BOARD MEETING: The actors of the Bristol Old Vic perform in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Spoleto.
When traveling, it's always nice to happen upon a familiar face, and we were delighted to run into fellow Atlantan and dance critic Cynthia Bond Perry with her family on our very first night at Charleston's Spoleto festival. We met on the way out of the Dock Street Theater after a performance of the opera "Matzukaze" on Saturday. When we asked Perry what she made of the challenging show - a retelling of an old Japanese folktale that meshed the dissonant music of contemporary Japanese composer Toshio Hosokowa with the traditions of Noh theater (sung in German, no less) - she characteristarically answered with movement, making a sweeping, elegant gesture with her arms. "I'm still processing it," she said a moment later, and so were we all.

Perry's big news - she and her family had been in town for several days enjoying the festival and were on their way out the next day - was that the production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which had received a pan from a critic at Charleston's alt-weekly, was actually fantastic. "Don't believe the critics," she said. It was a funny sort of thing for one critic to say to another, but I understood exactly what she meant, and as is so often the case, she turned out to be totally right.

HEAD AND HANDS: David Ricardo Pearce performs as Oberon and Kyle Lima as Demetrius. The production uses the puppetry of Handspring Puppet Company to bring Shakespeares fantasy world to life..
  • Simon Annand
  • HEAD AND HANDS: David Ricardo Pearce performs as Oberon and Kyle Lima as Demetrius. The production uses the puppetry of Handspring Puppet Company to bring Shakespeare's fantasy world to life..
We made it to "Dream" on Monday night, and it was a fantastic show. The production is a collaboration between the Bristol Old Vic Theatre of Great Britain and Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, which memorably created the horses for the National Theatre's production of "Warhorse."

It's not just the accent - Shakespeare's words can sound fine spoken with almost any accent, I think - but British actors often simply have a facility, familiarity, and experience with Shakespeare's language that can give a production a sense of clarity and immediacy that many American productions lack. This was notable in the show, but even more exciting was the show's use of puppets, often intriguingly and inventively combined with the live action. In "Dream," it always seems that the human characters, the fairies, and the fairy king and queen should all be vastly different sizes: it's implicit in the language, but almost impossible to accomplish with conventional actors on a conventional stage.

Here, it was manifested beautifully with all different sorts of puppets: the air in the wood outside of Athens seemed alive with all kinds of little winged things, and the wood itself, represented by plain wooden boards held by actors, could undulate menacingly or change its spacial character in an instant. Puck himself was an assemblage of found objects and tools - an antique blow torch, basket, saw and hammer manipulated by a group of actors - which could congregate and then disperse, a bit of stage magic that allowed the character to quickly appear and disappear as called for in the text. The Athenian lovers held doll-like representations of themselves they set aside in moments of romantic intensity; Bottom became a literal ass, transformed by climbing into a wheeled contraption that literally lifted his bare ass up to serve as a head (a fittingly surreal and bawdy touch); actors playing the human characters Hippolyta and Theseus became the fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania through the use of giant puppet heads and hands. Especially interesting was the injection of some genuine pathos into an otherwise broadly comic "Pyramus and Thisbe" scene at the end. In all, it was a production that masterfully teased out one of "Dream's" most interesting threads: the inextricably linked relationship between material form and incorporeal emotion that frequently has its most comically dissonant manifestation in romantic or erotic encounters.

The bawdy production does seem to be dividing audiences at Spoleto. Just before the lights went down at Lucky Plush Dance of Chicago's production of "The Better Half," I overheard a woman behind me complaining about the show. "It was awful," she said. "And too long. They did the whole thing." I did wonder which part she would think it best to excise from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," but in the end, I was glad they did the whole thing. Well, to each his own.

Charleston's Spoleto Festival continues through June 9. For more information, visit Spoleto Festival USA.

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