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A Sweltering "Midsummer" is White Hot Hijinks

Yesterday, (read: hot) in Orinda (read: really really hot) the actors in the California Shakespeare Company’s “Midsummer Nights Dream” danced and pranced, screamed and yelled, leapt and ran. In hot costumes at Orinda’s outdoor amphitheater (read: no air-conditioning.)

And yet, amazingly, they gushed -- not sweat -- but white hot energy.

In season’s past, in the name of winning new converts, Shakespeare has oft been staged in modern contexts (see, for example, the ’96 Leonardo diCaprioRomeo + Juliet” -- or rather don’t.) Calshakes has had its share of modernized-for-no- reason clunkers. I suspect to save costs on fancy Elizabethan duds.

This time, when King Theseus (a President-type) enters onto a sparse set, (speaking into a mike and flanked by secret service and a press agent) I worried that this Midsummer would be an uninspired stab at variation for variation’s sake (or budget’s sake.)

But while costumes and settings don’t exactly meld, one soon doesn’t really care that there are African kings and queens, Mission grunge hipsters and Russians in Ancient Athens.

For that matter, there’s also skateboards and water pistols, pop songs and battery operated doggies.

Director Aaron Posner’s anachronisms and site gags don’t eclipse Shakespeare’s own silliness. While amusing flourishes abound, the play is full of comedy, high and low.

Drenched with physical, visual comedy, priceless predicaments, romantic slapstick and benign sorcery, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is your perfect starter Shakespeare --- hard not to like, easy to comprehend.

In the woods (Brian Sidney Bembridge’s sparse set includes ladders and plush purple pillows) forest fairies wreak havoc on foolish mortals who are caught in the crossfire of the Fairy King and Queen’s lover’s spat.

Keith Randolph Smith’s mighty Oberon and Pegge Johnson’s Titania are exotically semi-attired (and black and bald) primitives. They love, laugh and clash large and the actors’ bold personalities do them justice.

The main story line concerns a hopeless love-rectangle in which he loves her but she loves some other him, and he loves somebody else (as the J. Geils Band once told us.)

Erin Weaver and Avery Monsen are Hermia and Lysander, who elope to find misadventure where romance should be. He’s a pork-pie-hatted hipster; she’s a spunky grunge East Village type. They sing Beatles and Marvin Gaye – until Demetrius (Richard Thieriot as a callous preppy) follows the couple into the woods.

He’s followed by Helena who’s crazy for him. He loves her not. And Hermia loves him not. And still this goes further hay-wire when the Fairy King Oberon’s intended magical resolution is botched by Puck. Hijinks ensue. 

The jealousy, bewilderment and utter chaos that befall Helen and Hermia as their suitors run hot and cold, (their heartstrings pulled and yanked by fairy flowers) is a laugh riot.

Some of the best chemistry is between Lindsay Gates’ sarcastic and bewildered Helena and Weaver’s tiny toughie who threatens to pummel anybody who crosses her, including her best friend.

Magic is creatively conjured when Oberon and Puck control, restrain and even slow-mo the couples. More invisibility works magic when Puck plays with miniscule (as in not there) fairies who speak in teeny tiny voices.

Doug Hara’s Puck is a centaur of sorts. Puck’s traditionally played as mischievous sprite, but while Hara is a nimble and amusing, he lacks the appropriate level as playful rascalness.

Puck and  Oberon punk Titania; their love-drops make her fall for  something ghastly -- which turn out o be Bottom, the weaver. Danny Schieie (very funny and very queeny in everything he does) is once again hysterical as Bottom – an obnoxious ham who fancies himself a master thespian, and generally makes an ass of himself. Hence, Puck transforms Bottom into a half-assed creature.

He’s part of a troupe of numbskull players rehearsing a play for the royals; Joan Mankin’s drunk, Russian incompetent “Snug” (playing a lame-ass lion) also stands out for her comically preposterous performance.