This is a review of the Actors' Gang's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I reviewed last year's production right around this time. I wanted to watch this show every night, laughing, engaged by the lyric, mythic and wacky action.
If last year's A Midsummer Night's Dream was like Carousel, this, then is Phantom of the Opera -- there's a deeper drama to this production and every actor in the company has grown into its character's depth. This is a 3-D madcap adventure, dense with references to issues we know too well, issues and tensions created by humans ever since God invented us and, like a rather too generous parent, gave us the best planet in the galaxy.
Unlike Congress, and, let's say, the rest of the world, the Actors' Gang has found the App to our time. In his Director's Note, Tim Robbins explains the difference in this season's approach.
"At a recent rehearsal for the tour of A Midsummer Night's Dream, we faced a terrible challenge. One of the senseless shootings that have spread across our country like a virus hit home. The shooting in Santa Barbara affected one of us directly and we were faced with violence bringing grief to our theatre. How do we rehearse this play with this heavy hearted melancholy present in our space? How do we bring the spirit of Shakespeare's forest alive? What could possibly be relevant in this work from the last decade of the 16th century to today's epidemic of violence sweeping the globe? The Actors' Gang has done trenchant satires in the past. Why not do one now?"
And so they have. I don't laugh much anymore, but the laughter this year is the tough laugh you give to inspired satire. Why not, then, enhance the manic torment of A Midsummer Night's Dream? Don't actor/artists have a handle on torment? On ecstasy's attachment to fury? For is it not rage which triggers the action of the pen? Oh, yeah, connects the world.
We sense the heat is here to stay, cars are drowning in underground garages. Lightning kills a surfer on a summer beach, and huddled masses of children gather on our borders. No choke hold here but an intense, devastating and arresting new take on A Midsummer Night's Dream.
At first the stage is empty. Shadowy figures stand on each side in front of dark mirrors framed by garlands, shawls, cloaks, draped on hooks, a crown of branches here or there. The tone of the costumes tells us right away, this is no Disney fake forest. Musicians sit to the left; playing canyon rhythms, midforest music, which grows, weaving, dancing us through the story. The tumbling gymnastics, the earth tones and the artful abstract agility of the costumes enhances the emotional depth of the story. Midsummer is the perfect season to represent in full torment the madness of our time, to watch actors you've come to know work together.
You can look anywhere on this stage and one of the company is twitching a hand, catching the eye of another, flicking at a branch stuck like antlers in thorny crowns.
You sit up straight, spirit taking off, flying with the choreography driven by emotion. I laughed at Bob Turton's huge crazy eyes. He's "Bottom." Just look for eyes like floodlights, like spinning moons of outrage, alarm and mayhem. (I did agree when someone said, "Me thought I was enamored of an ass.") What makes this show not only great entertainment, but singular art is the conscious action. Each move or expression is not being "performed." This actor here becomes her or his baffled, appalled, entranced character. Even when she (Mary Eileen O'Donnell, in particular, is not 'in' the scene) the mythic insight of her character is responding.
Shakespeare lasts because each character is true, each emotion authentic. Authentic does not mean "This is who I am," but as Shakespeare understood, and demonstrates: the authentic human generates no singular definition: I love you. But, I hate you too.
True Helena and Hermia have wars not unlike "Girls" this time. We feel for them, they are like friends lost over a passion for someone not worth the toss of that loyal companion. However, I'd love to have seen a tinier, saucy Hermia, who comes back at tall Helena's taunts with a fiery wit. It could be a ravishing moment as modern as the fight I heard between two girls in the Equinox changing room last week: two girls over one guy. (This is picky. A villainy to make even one small complaint.)
I'm guessing Shakespeare began to write A Midsummer Night's Dream after a hideous time wrestling with characters who would not come clear (e.g. family or bureaucrat landowners) and then he had this nightmarish mix, and came up flowing with this image; the world is crazy: milkmaid was screwing the donkey. And the actors didn't show up for rehearsal, the set designer said he saw them dancing naked in the park -- they'd eaten some weird salad and guzzled a lot of ale.
I awoke the next morning wanting to be in the mesmerizing wilderness Tim Robbins has created. Inspired by Titania's buffet, I heard Sabra Williams as Titania, hosting the fairies' forest event. Titania suggests, "Feed him with apricocks and dewberries, with purple grapes, green figs and mulberries, the honey bags steal from the bumble bees..."
I was thrown back to a time when a bunch of us kids, in the 1940s, did a version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at what was then called The Brentwood Town & Country School (now John Thomas Dye). Traveler, our school horse, played Bottom (someone made a mask with huge ears), and when Titania (I think Jane Fonda played her then) addressed us to be kind "to this gentleman," we hugged and stroked Traveler. We didn't know we were a theatre company. But after school we'd talk about where the show would be today: the place in history would determine hats, boots, masks, gauntlets - piles of stuff in our playrooms. Would it be an easy Western show, we'd throw in some square dance? Peter Fonda might toss a lasso. Errol Flynn's son Sean liked being a bandit and Maria Cooper, tall as her father Gary, a distinguished Helena, was tough on Josie Mankiewicz's Hermia.
Warner LeRoy the oldest played Theseus and Oberon, did casting and direction, and Tarquin Olivier was a ravishing Demetrius but then, tonight, this Demetrius, Adam Jefferis, could not conceive a move of eye or loin that would thrill me more.
Now I am plucking branches of thyme out of the well-simmered flagelot beans; then I lift out twigs of rosemary and riff my fingers down to thatch the thing I'm making with the strappy tufts of most flavored herb. Now I have here on the counter this array, a marching band of herbal stalks, no different than the rushes the dancers waved in the Midsummer forest to the tintabulation of legendary rhythms.
Barefoot as the actors, I make an armband, attaching this tambourine I found (which holds the garage opener so I won't lose that again) and, hence, crown my head with these merry branches, swipe some ivy from the fence next door, and garlanded in this way, join Titania's posh rendering of a forest buffet and dance to the memory of David Robbins' music. Intriguing it would be to see Sabra Williams (Titania) and Pierre Adeli (Oberon) star in an Actors' Gang Macbeth.
If drought be our pox, and fitness our romance, then, how perfect to see this cast tumble and leap, bodies tangled with dried garlands of ivy yanked from collapsing castles. They truly fly in barefoot wonder like the revolutionary dancers from last century's Depression who tossed away slippers, raising their arms in a wilderness of waving rushes, rustling to the dark beat of music which captures their time and our time.
Yes. There are a couple of guys in dark suits, tonic hair, and shades. Standing security on the scene. To remind us of which millennium we're in.
There is no match in L.A. for the well conceived artistic reach and excellence of the Actors' Gang. There is no more appealing and inventive theatre.