Review: Shakespeare gets Southern Comfort in Selma’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’
A midsummer romp in November? Sure, why not? The Selma Arts Center production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is unorthodox in other ways, after all, from a hip-hop interlude by the Mechanicals to a Puck who seems less like an impish fairy and more like a mint-julep-sucking, Deep-South sheriff under FBI investigation. There might be a chill in the air, but Shakespeare is year-round, after all.
This new production, directed by a thoughtful and obviously enthused Casey Ballard, has some fun strengths. Also some weaknesses. A recap:
Pictured above: Kate McKnight as Titania leads her fairies in ‘Midsummer.’ Photo: Selma Arts Center.
The concept: Ballard sets the action in Athens, Georgia, instead of the one with the Acropolis, and I am still a little fuzzy on what exactly she was going for. (I kept thinking of the lovers traipsing through the forest looking not for each other but suppressed votes for Stacey Abrams.) The fairies have a Voodoo vibe, with Titania (a strong Kate McKnight) as a laidback earth-mama type and Oberon (a gentle Daniel Serrano) as a so-mellow-he-must-be-on-something observer-philosopher. The lovers are dressed present-day, as are the Mechanicals. The concept seems a little strained to me, even after reading the director’s note. (Why is Egeus, played by Oz Monroe, wearing a string bow tie that makes him look like he has an appointment afterward for an Old West shootout?) But, then again, if Ballard hadn’t set the action in Georgia, I wouldn’t have gotten to see the strangely compelling vision of Puck as hard-edged Dixie political fixer.
The acting: Speaking of which, I have to hand it to Renee Newlove (and Ballard) for committing to a different Puck all the way. Dressed in a long-sleeve white Oxford shirt and vest, Newlove gives a fresh and bracing interpretation to the role, making this Puck, with her thick drawl and calculating demeanor, a slightly smirky, officious manipulator — not so much playful as dark-edged and almost noirish. She should be running the forest, not the mellow fairy king and queen. (Or maybe she is, heh heh.)
The great tucking question: Josh Plowman is a lively Lysander (one of the young noble lovers at loose in the forest), and I particularly like his droopy-marionette infatuation right after he falls in love at first sight with Helena (an energetic Laramie Woolsey). (I do have to say, though, that it slowly drove me crazy wondering why the front of Lysander’s shirt remained studiously tucked in throughout the show while the back remained untucked, hipster-style. Was this a new Athens (Georgia), fashion trend? Or couldn’t he decide?)
The Mechanicals: In any version of “Midsummer,” I find myself pondering which group of characters I enjoy hanging out with the most: Is it the fairies, the lovers, the court, or the Mechanicals (the group of outrageously bad amateur actors who bumble through the play with their own storyline as they prepare a performance for the duke)? In this production, it’s no question: The Mechanicals, led by a merry Peter Quince (a scene-stealing Claudio Laso), provide laughs, insight and even a bit of finely played tragedy. (Chris Ortiz-Belcher in the “play within the play” gives us a nice interlude.) Laso and the rest of his squad (including Laura Dodds as an amusing Bottom) keep the laughs coming.
The edits: Everyone cuts Shakespeare. And I’m no purist. I don’t even mind the Hippolyta- Amazon-queen arc losing most of its bite. But the production did feel a little disjointed once “morning” arrives, and I started wondering what I missed. And at the end, I missed the traditional “was it all a dream?” sendoff.
The production: Nicolette C. Andersen’s scenic design is a highlight for me, particularly in the forest at night. David Esquivel’s lighting design gives those moments a diffuse, otherworldly, almost jungle-like quality.
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The takeaway: This “Midsummer” has inspired moments. It also has inconsistent directing and acting, with some cast members well prepared to tackle the text and others somewhat less so. Still, anytime Puck isn’t wearing green tights and horns is OK by me. I’ll take that mint julep to go, please.