Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of his most accessible and most frequently produced comedies. I've seen various adaptations of the play before, some more successful than others. Fortunately, the production that the Southwest Shakespeare Company is currently presenting is quite good and extremely unusual with two huge benefits going for it. First, the running time is just slightly over 90 minutes, which means you get all of the action and famous lines from the play without any of what some people might say are the "boring" parts, which, while purists might not approve, is a big bonus for theatregoers who aren't too keen on their Shakespeare. But the biggest benefit is the setting. Retitled as Fairy Worlds! and presented as a co-production with the Desert Botanical Garden, the play is set in the outdoor event area of the Garden. Since most of the play is set in the forests outside of Athens, it makes sense to draw upon the natural outdoor setting of the Desert Botanical Garden to frame the action on the stage. With fairy lights in the surrounding trees, more trees behind the stage that are awash in changing color to form a natural backdrop, cactus off to the sides, and Camelback Mountain off in the distance, a mystical aura heightens the magical moments in Shakespeare's script.
Part romantic comedy, part fantasy, the play is a pure ensemble piece that follows several characters entwined in romance. At the center are two pairs of young lovers who become lost in the woods and fall under magic potions of the fairies and sprites who live there. This is framed by two other couples, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, who are about to be married, and Titania and Oberon, the Fairy Queen and King, who use their forest home as a playground for the mortals whom they encounter there, mischievously playing tricks on them. Added to the mix are a group of bumbling Athenian tradesmen, led by the weaver Nick Bottom, who plan to perform a play at Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding feast, but first, Bottom finds himself mixed up in the tricks of the fairy world.
Director/Adaptor Jared Sakren skillfully keeps his abridged plot moving forward, with an appropriate balance between a light touch for the comic moments and a more assured directive for the few serious ones. Together, they nicely combine to portray the enchantment and humor of love. Sakren is also quite effective in his staging, with nice use of the expansive stage. An acrobatically "choreographed" lover's quarrel actually brought a few gasps to the audience at the performance I attended, in reaction to how effectively and accomplished it is staged.
An especially nice element of this theatre company is that many of the actors appear in various plays they produce each season. This gives Southwest Shakespeare a nice sense of a well-oiled acting "company" of actors. The Fairy Worlds! cast features many actors who appeared previously this season in SSC's productions of Macbeth, Equivocation and Christmas Carol, as well as in shows in previous seasons, and they all bring the right combination of enchantment, humor and romance to their parts. The play is sometimes ominous, but frequently humorous, and the cast members perfectly understand their characters and easily make us understand them as well.
As most productions of the play do, two actors play the parts of both Theseus and Oberon and Hippolyta and Titania. Tracy Liz Miller brings nice layers of mysticism and feistiness to Titania and Hippolyta, appropriate since Hippolyta has just been defeated in war by Theseus and is somewhat reluctant to wed him. Randy Messersmith is quite effective as Oberon, with just the right level of foreboding to show jealousy and anger he displays, and how he uses magic for his benefit, though his Theseus is a bit too one-note for me. However, he does display a nice combination of regality and leadership in the part. Ted Barton's Bottom has a sweet charm to his roughness, and perfectly hams it up. Barton brings a good blend of comic timing, expressive looks and funny voices to the role and his "death" scene in the play within the play is one of the funniest things you'll see on stage this season. Beau Heckman, who also plays two parts, brings the right level of excitement to both Peter Quince, one of Bottom's co-patriots, as well as Egeus, the father of Hermia, one of the four young lovers.
As the four young lovers, Allison Sell is a spirited and emotional Hermia, while Portia Beacham provides a perfectly high-strung Helena. Andy Cahoon and Jeremiah James make dashing partners for Hermia and Helena. Paul Michael Thomson, as Puck, the sprite who continually uses the love potion on the wrong person, is acrobatic, lean and small, just like you'd expect a sprite to be. His physical abilities work well with the choreographed movement, where motions like the wave of his hand create perfectly timed "magical" reactions from the mortal characters.
Jeff Thomson's scenic design incorporates an expansive stage, which is used effectively, though the majority of the important action is staged toward the front or center. With minimal set pieces, the simple use of some fog effects, and lush lighting from Michael J. Eddy, we are transported to the various locations in the play. Several light towers are seamlessly incorporated into the scenery with snake lighting that, when lit, appear to be the colorful branches of magical forest trees.
Costumes by Adriana Diaz and Maci Hosler are exquisite, with character specific outfits that are perfect creations. Highlights include a shimmering gown with a flowing train for Titania, simple peasant dresses for Helena and Hermia, and mystical creations with multi-colored lights in their wings for the fairies. The tradesmen garb for Bottom and his gang, which includes appropriate headgear like an over-sized wielder's mask, adds a nice touch of humor, as do the costumes the tradesmen wear to bring the farcical play within a play to life.
The combination of a simple yet creative scenic design, gorgeous lighting and inspired costumes, set within the sweeping landscape of the Desert Botanical Garden, makes Fairy Worlds! a visually stunning theatrical event.
While most of the adaptation and production works, I've got just a few small quibbles. The choreography by Michèle Ceballos Michot is fairly basic, with nothing magical about it, and the inclusion of the "body womb" movement, choreographed by Julianna Curtis, while somewhat mystical, doesn't really gel with the rest of the show. The inclusion of both a fire artist and circus tight rope walker add some circus magic to the show, but the fire artist is overused, and does the same repetitive action, which gets very old and slows the show down a bit. At the performance I attended there was a technical issue that stopped the show for a few minutes, as well as several sound problems that caused microphone cues to be missed and another performer's microphone to be continually going on and off, most likely due to a bad battery. Hopefully most of those technical issues can be remedied since this was an early performance in the run, and, since the amount of dancing and circus stunts is fairly minimal, they fortunately don't detract too much from the overall magical end result of the production.
With the combination of the dreamlike sets and lighting, sublime costumes and the swiftness of the abridged version of the script, Fairy Worlds! is a fun-filled, fast-paced, romantic evening with a very good cast, confident direction and an impressive setting that casts a magical spell over the audience.
The Southwest Shakespeare Company production of Fairy Worlds! runs through June 1st, 2014, with performances at The Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 N. Galvin Parkway in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at swshakespeare.org or by calling (602) 535-1202.
Director/Adapation: Jared Sakren