Finding the real Shakespeare at Syracuse Stage

The cast of Syracuse Stage's 'A Midsummer's Night Dream.'Photo: Michael Davis A Midsummers Night Dream Who Syracuse Stage Where 820 E. Genesee St, Syracuse When Through Feb. 17 Tickets $18-49 Review by Eesha Patkar 

Reading Shakespeare plays in class or sitting through painful high school productions starring your theatrically inept friends doesn’t prepare you for the real thing. And boy, Syracuse Stage’s rendering of Midsummer Night’s Dream is the real thing.

Well, most of it anyway.

Bill Fennelley’s revamped direction of Midsummer Night’s Dream with anachronistic period costumes, not-so-subtle pop culture references and cleverly timed lines makes this classic, tired piece into a postmodern riot. There are sunglasses, brewskis and a boombox that just won’t quit.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to presume that everyone is familiar with this Shakespearean comedy, but for those living under a rock: Theseus, the Duke of Athens (played by a swarthy Lindsay Smiling) is about to wed his conquest, his trophy, also known as his beloved future wife Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (the beautiful Kimiye Corwin).

As they sip tropical drinks in their beach chairs on Theseus’ royal English grounds surrounded by stoic English guards, who should come storming but the rich and stuffy landowner Egeus (a villainous William Langan). He wants his property, his estate, also known as his daughter Hermia (Rachel Slotky) married to dumb Demetrius (Max Miller) rather than her love Lysander (Ethan Butler).

Because William Shakespeare was fond of sacrificing a woman’s basics rights as a plot device to make room for hilarious shenanigans, Hermia now has to choose between Demetrius or death. Or being a nun. Luckily, Lysander has plans of running away and eloping. But to do so, they must enter the dark woods.

The course of true love never did run smooth. To prove this, the gardener’s daughter Helena (Rachel Towne)— bosom buds with our fair heroine— runs to her unrequited love Demetrius with intimate knowledge of these secretive plans. Then, follows him as he follows them into those very woods.

To heighten the promising chaos about to befall the play, a subplot takes place that involves six Athenian commoners desirous of wowing their king and queen on their upcoming nuptials with a dramatic retelling of the tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. To rehearse, this band of merry mechanicals agrees to meet in the woods. This comedy-within-a-comedy always seemed needless and only marginally amusing, but Syracuse Stage’s performance had me bent over and laughing at its hilarious execution.

Kimiye Corwin (Hippolyta/Titania) and Lindsay Smiling (Theseus/Oberon).Photo: Michael Davis

We return to the woods where dreams become reality. And also serve as battlegrounds of the sexes as the Fairy King Oberon (Smiling) engages in a tense standoff – delivered through highly charged choreography – with his Fairy Queen Titania (Corwin). The object of their feud is a ridiculously pretty and shirtless Changeling (Derek Goh), who really enjoys carrying his Queen over his shoulders. So, it’s completely understandable why Titania wouldn’t want to give him up to Oberon who only intends to waste the breadth of that semi-Adonis’ deltoid muscles in minion type activities.

Full of revenge, Oberon decides to humiliate his wife into surrendering her prize. Robin Goodfellow, more famously referred to as Puck (played by an evil David L. Townsend) is the perfect sprite to carry out his dastardly plans. To do so, Puck has to obtain a magical flower possessing juices that will turn Titania helplessly in love with the first living being she lays eyes on. Preferably a vile animal, according to Oberon.

While Puck is off on this mission, girdle and all, Oberon proves he isn’t a totally heartless brute but just a meddling one. He comes upon a cruel Demetrius violently rejecting poor Helena’s desperate declarations of love. Indignant on her behalf, he instructs Puck to dose the Athenian with the same mind-altering nectar.

And thus, all hell breaks loose.

Midsummer Night’s Dream comes predisposed with a series of convoluted elements, and Fennelley’s innovative re-appropriations could have easily been a miss. Taking the timelessness of Shakespeare’s works to new heights, he employs gimmicky allusions to pop culture which somehow blend adroitly with the turgid medieval-speak. The sight of Peter Quince (Michael J. Hume), the well-meaning leader of the group of mechanicals, barking orders and prompting dialogues in a director’s chair and a pretentious scarf wrapped around his neck is hilariously etched in my mind. Fennelley’s production is cleverly mocking itself, and having a rollicking time at it.

Fun and games aside, the most striking quality of this production is its sensuality. At times overwhelming, it comes to play in the crackling chemistry of Oberon and Titania/Thesus and Hippolyta. Smiling’s tall, dark, handsomeness functions equally well as the fierce Oberon and staid Theseus but pales in comparison to his stage wife. As the bewitching Queen of the Fairies, Corwin’s physical presence through her dance is lush, hedonistic and mesmerizing, but switches to a lithesome grace when playing the demure queen of Athens. Her talented movements put everyone else’s to shame.

Their sensuousness is largely an effect of the mysterious woods, and extends quite interestingly to our star-crossed and generally cross lovers who find themselves trapped in it. One by one, Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius lose their prim and proper attire and unabashedly run around in their bloomers. The wild change is also apparent in their behavior as some forgotten primal instincts of flight or fight, mate or kill take over.

Lindsay Smiling (Theseus/Oberon), left, and Kimiye Corwin (Hippolyta/Titania), center, surrounded by fairies, as David L. Townsend (Puck/Philostrate) looks on from the far right, in 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream.'Photo: Michael Davis

As far as the characters go, Hermia is shrill. Helena is high-strung. Demetrius is waspish. Lysander is a Lothario all aflutter on stage, with bodily movements that bear resemblance to the serpentine ones of Titania, except less delightful. However, as a whole the foursome do justice to the roles amidst the otherwise established cast of stage actors. I can’t say I cared much for the cat-fight that breaks out between the Hermia and Helena, nor the encouraging cheers from Lysander, Demetrius and the hidden Puck (amusing as it may have been).

This production of Midsummer Night’s Dream has two performances that undoubtedly call for standing ovations. There is the inevitable joy of watching Puck’s mischief run rampant throughout the play. Townsend gives an explosive entry as the sexually ambiguous and devilishly reprobate in the first half of the play. His remorse is just as believable, thus making his twisted speech in the end all the more chilling.

However, it is John Pribyl as Nick Bottom, the bumbling weaver whose foolish antics and garish parody of Pyramus that has the audience screaming in laughter. If at all the production threatens to become dry, Bottom makes sure it didn’t.

Without the excellent choreography, beautiful sound and lighting, and quirky treatment of costumes, this play couldn’t have delivered half the entertainment it did.

Midsummer Night’s Dream is an exploited and exhausted work, but this Syracuse Stage production handles it with great style.