by Byron Woods
Cary’s incremental embrace of live theater at Koka Booth Amphitheatre—still too little, if not too late—continued (and concluded) for another year with a brief but notable regional production last week of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
By way of recap, it took Cary’s Cultural Arts Division a full decade after Booth Amphitheatre opened before finally committing to the venue’s first live theater event. When it did, last summer’s production of Twelfth Night garnered good audiences—and made the Indy’s best of 2010 lists for ensemble, direction and costume design.
The current production, Booth’s second such endeavor, was granted four nights at the venue last week. (Theater-goers will already recognize that length constitutes, at most, one-half of a two-to-three-week run that is the standard for regional live theater.) Then Hurricane Irene effectively cut that already modest stand in half, canceling two nights of performances, before A Midsummer Night's Dream closed on Sunday night.
That was, of course, unfortunate. But a look at Booth Amphitheatre’s upcoming calendar reveals an even more disturbing fact.
After Dream's closing, that venue remains dark over both of the next two weekends.
Did Cary's Cultural Arts actually prefer to let Booth just stay closed during that time, instead of chancing a multi-week run that would meet the region’s standard?
If so, the briefest glance at the track records of comparable venues just a few miles northwest—and even fewer miles northeast—might be instructive.
For during the 10 years Cary presented no live theater at Booth, Paperhand Puppet Intervention consistently demonstrated that a regional company can fill a major outdoor venue of comparable size—for a solid month of weekend shows—and then still have enough demand left over for satellite dates in another local city. (Paperhand’s 11th season at Chapel Hill’s Forest Theatre, which opened Aug. 5, ends on Sept. 5—before a three-night stand the following weekend at the N.C. Museum of Art, Sept. 9-11.)
Could any arts presenter in this area have possibly missed the significance of that development?
Under the circumstances, the question’s irresistible: Why couldn’t the same—or, at the least, a conventional, two-week run—be granted for live theater, outdoors, in Cary?
The query only becomes more pressing when considering the quality of this summer and last summer's brief productions. It's clear that both of these rewarding shows deserved a longer run.
We’ll witness Shakespeare sought in different times (including a post-Katrina New Orleans and the Jazz Age), enabled by a design team that’s up for the hunt. We’ll see intelligent interpretive choices, leavened by a full measure of whimsy—if not more, at times. And you just don’t spend that many hours in audiences and on stage in a career without having learned how to entertain.
These achievements will rest on solid foundational work, including crisp, articulate and nuanced readings, fully owned by actors who know, at every moment, exactly what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. (This should, by all rights, be a minimum requirement for Shakespeare, but still that standard regularly challenges even our larger companies.) The show will be based on auditions that are open, and casting that reflects it, drawing upon actors from the region as a whole instead of just the local street gang, with an on-stage mix of talented new faces and seasoned veterans.
This latest production of A Midsummer Night's Dream did not disappoint in any of these benchmarks.
In retrospect, steampunk, that imaginative subculture based on alternative histories and anachronistic fusions in technologies and fashions, was a cunning production concept choice for a world in which Athenian nobility, an Amazon queen—and fairies—all share close quarters.
Here, it unleashed costume designer Shannon Clark and associate Nora Murphy to envision a sumptuous, recombinant—but not always consistent—amalgam of motifs from the Elizabethan era to the present. Picture an Athenian wood populated by goth-tinged fairies, done up in black, red and white fine lace, with the occasional top hat for good measure. Then add ruffs, the neckware of choice in the courts of the 1500s, encircling the actors’ throats—but in folded silver instead of starched white cloth.
Then up the ante for the central characters. Titania, the fairy queen (Dana Marks), was costumed in a modified hoop skirt, white knee-high boots—and a metallic, parabolic backpiece extending upward from her shoulders, that served to frame her face against a portable backdrop of lace and folded gold. Images this striking caught our eye through the entire performance.
Occasionally, though, Clarke’s costumes ran the risk of upstaging the actors in them—or, worse, depicting a character markedly different than the one being portrayed. After an opening sequence that (finally, after so many productions) believably depicted the rough love play appropriate to the Amazon queen, Hippolyta (Marks again, double-cast), a later miscalculation made the wedding dress at her marriage to Theseus (Chris Muntel) suggest an oversized peppermint drop, adorned with a spray of peacock feathers.
Elsewhere, bedecked in the aforementioned silver neckware, a shirt that looked like a ragged Union Jack (with a rude variation on the royal wartime edict, "Keep Calm and Carry On," scrawled across the back) and a Mohawk hairdo, actor Lucius Robinson in his role as Puck looked a cross between a ’70s-era London punk and a dilophosaurus from the film Jurassic Park.
Still, his singular look would have worked—that is, had Robinson’s character ever actually sounded or acted anything at all like the anarchic British yob he was so convincingly costumed as, instead of the ingratiating, obedient—and more or less one-dimensional—operative he played to Oberon, the fairy king (Muntel, double-cast). Thankfully, no other costume or character choice in the entire production was as errant as this.
As theater-goers know, the Rude Mechanicals—those homespun amateurs eternally doomed to mount the most calamitous version ever of Pyramus and Thisbe, the fifth act’s play-within-a-play—frequently steal the show in productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The bumbling crew assembled here, including Jeremy Fiebig, Del Flack, David Klionsky, Mattney Beck and Ira David Wood IV, definitely did not disappoint. Their collection of theatrical gaffes made us weak with laughter.
But before their Titanic opening (and closing) night, Henderson gave Chris Burner’s Bottom an extended moment of unexpected, perfect grace. It occured the morning following that night of strange enchantments in the forest, when an astonished Bottom could perfectly recall how, for several hours, he alone was the beloved of the Fairy Queen. Quite a rare achievement, particularly for a mortal.
In Burner’s performance Bottom once more was translated, for a moment, by the memories of his most sublime encounter.
This season has had few moments quite as touching.
A production so extensively mined for the possibilities in Shakespeare’s subtexts deserved far more than two nights and the bum’s rush in Cary. Particularly when the theater presenting it was just going to stay dark two weekends after.
When you add up the rehearsals, design and tech, it takes several thousand labor hours to produce Shakespeare live.
The extremity of that commitment is only magnified when its only permitted outcome is in four performances. From such a large investment, shouldn't a producer want to maximize the returns—and the showings?
Apparently that's a lesson Cary has left to learn. Given the high quality of the work presented these past two summers at Koka Booth, it's a schooling that desperately needs to be completed before their next season's planned, for their artists' and their audiences' sake.