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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


A Midsummer Night's Dream and
Civil War

Following up last year's acclaimed production of As You Like It, Seattle Repertory Theatre's artistic director, Sharon Ott, has woven similar magic with a fresh and energetic take on fairyland's oldest chestnut, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. As it is one of Shakespeare's most produced plays, it may surprise you that for almost three centuries it was thought unproduceable and no productions were attempted until the late 18th century. Aside from the obvious technical difficulties this play presents, the script is also not one of Shakespeare's finest and is a bit of a muddled mess, with its mixture of star crossed romances, fantastical fairies and crude clowns. Balancing these elements into a homogeneous mix, or at least one that you can actually envision interacting, is no mean feat, and director Sharon Ott has done a highly successful job doing so.

Geoff Hoyle and Suzanne Bouchard
Photo: Chris Bennion
A Midsummer Night's Dream
The play basically has four storylines which interact to varying degrees. Bookending the play are scenes devoted to the marriage of Theseus, duke of Athens (Brent Harris) and the conquered Amazon queen, Hippolyta (Suzanne Bouchard). The play then veers off to follow two sets of couples, Hermia (Kristen Potter) and Lysander (Matthew Troyer), and Helena (Courtney Peterson) and Demetrius (Jeffries Thais), whose romantic cross-purposes are even further complicated by their flight into the play's Fairyland forest, where Oberon (Brent Harris again) and Titania (Suzanne Bouchard) are engaged in a lover's spat. Toss into the mix a group of teamsters who are rehearsing a play intended for the Duke's wedding, one of whom gets turned into an ass and has an affair with the Fairy Queen in the process, and you being to see the challenges this comedy presents.

Luckily, director Sharon Ott is more than up to the challenge, especially when aided by such talented designers as Hugh Landwehr (sets), Paul Tazewell (costumes) and Nancy Schertler (lights). All involved have created a fantastical setting which is equal parts contemporary and fantastic, all the while maintaining a constantly believable world for the characters to inhabit. The entire show is a feast for the eyes. The costumes are stunning, with Oberon and his troupe dressed in Tim Burton-esque black leather muscle outfits ala Batman. Titania's retinue is clad in gossamer white dresses or bright Muppet-like outfits (all with Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence styled makeup). The sets consist of a fantastic array of mirrors which serve to multiply the fairies into an infinite number, as well as to confuse the lost lovers as they trek through the woods. As befits the fantastical aspects of the play, characters are flown (by Foy, of course) or appear on swings composed of moons or '60s loveseats.

Of course, all this would mean nothing if the characters were not brought to rich, vibrant life as well, and Sharon has done a great job assembling a talented cast. The young lovers are well matched and the attractions are justifiable. Leather clad 'bad boy' Lysander (Matthew Troyer) is the polar opposite of prissy Demetrius (Jeffries Thaiss); a man so concerned with image that he dresses like the Duke and spreads a hankie on the ground prior to kneeling before his lady love. Courtney Peterson plays Helena with a strong intelligence and a fierce determination not to be made the object of ridicule, and is well matched by the fiery Hermia (Courtney Peterson) who descends to Jerry Springer territory to regain her man. Dan Donahue is delightful as a Puck more fey than fairy, resembling a cross between Cabaret's Emcee and The Artful Dodger. Special mention must be made of Geoff Hoyle's Bottom (a loaded reference if ever there was one). A superb clown in the most professional and honorary way, Geoff dominated the play to the extent that he received the final bow. His death scene (a good fifteen minutes in length) was the comic highlight of the show and provided solid entertainment in a fifth act largely anticlimactic in most productions.

A Midsummer Night's Dream runs through March 17th at Seattle Repertory Theatre. For more information visit their website, www.seattlerep.org.

Say what you will, but 1999 was a rather interesting one for musical theater, as none of the nominees for Best Musical really exemplified the 'traditional' musical. We had musicals about murder trials/lynchings in the South (Parade) and religious persecution of teenagers (Footloose) and those were the traditional book musicals! The Tony went to a bookless dance recital (Fosse) and the fourth nominee was a hybrid oratorio/tone poem not about people per se but about an event, The Civil War. The American Civil War lasted four years (1861-1865) and divided the country. Frank Wildhorn's Civil War lasted two months (4/25/99 - 6/13/99) and while it was not nearly as divisive (or producing as many casualties), it likewise managed to split the theater community into those that loved it and those that loathed it.

Civil War
Larry Gatlin
Photo: Carol Rosegg
The newly conceived touring version has rolled into Seattle's Paramount Theatre with Grammy Award winning country star Larry Gatlin featured as the Confederate Captain, giving me the chance not only to view it, but complete my set of the musicals nominated in 1999 for Best Musical. Thus, I was excited to see it, expecting nothing and knowing few of the twenty-six songs featured in the show. I honestly found the show to be as split as the Blue and the Grey forces that fought over two centuries ago, and like those battling armies, it failed to find a peaceful or homogeneous resolution.

First of all, the show resembles not so much a theatrical work as it does the American Adventure attraction at Disney World. (Note: This is not necessarily a bad thing or a slam, as I am a complete Disneyophile). By that I mean that it is a collection of songs, readings, and slides which gives a taste of the American experience, rather than telling a story or making you feel for any of the individuals on stage. The characters are nondescript, with names out of a Churchill or Genet play ('A Soldier,' 'A Slave,' 'The Wife,' etc.). There is no real narrative and the only attempt at story is given to us by the projections, which detail battles, dates and casualties throughout the war. The songs by Frank Wildhorn are a stylistic muddle, ranging from Appalachian folk sounding ballads (the haunting "I'll Never Pass This Way Again," well sung in this production by Clay Roberts), to hard core gospel ("Someday") to songs that sound as if they were lifted from Jekyll & Hyde ("How Many Devils").

The show honestly touched me more than I thought it would have, but not as much as it should have. The biggest problem is not its concept, as composers have been writing song cycles and oratorios which have moved me to tears for centuries, but its structure. The show is, first of all, too long to sustain one's interest. Two and a half hours is, quite frankly, too much to sustain this type of show, and it would have been well served by being half that (and sans intermission). Also, the themes of the songs are far too repetitious, especially in the group numbers. The slaves keep singing about freedom. The solders keep singing about battle and the hell they are going through. The wife keeps singing about missing her husband. Etc., etc., etc. While a few of the group numbers provide true 'goose-bump' moments ("Brother, my Brother" being the chief instigator for me), the lion's share of the power and the passion is through the solo numbers, and The Civil War would have been much more powerful if it had focused more on those. "Tell My Father" is a powerful piece of theater (even if it is more than a little reminiscent of "Mama, Look Sharp" from 1776) and was heartrendingly sung by Royal Reed. Likewise, "I Never Knew His Name" is a haunting number (sung by Nicolette Hart) which rivals anything on Broadway today.

The touring production does have a lot going for it, despite its flaws. It has been streamlined and re-thought (largely thanks to director Stephen Raye, a frequent sight at the Royal Shakespeare Company). Gone are the slo-mo battle scenes and a large portion of the cast. The orchestra is now on stage with the performers, and the set by Douglas W. Schmidt, consists of demolished columns, brick walls and iron balconies and provides a myriad of scenic possibilities, thanks to an incredible light design by Howell Binkley. The projections by Wendall K. Harrington fill in the blanks and provide a rich tapestry of backdrops. And let's not forget the cast, which to a person is strong. Although it is hard to tell who does what, thanks to the aforementioned lack of character names, standouts must include (and I pray that I deciphered their identities correctly) Moses Braxton Jr., who possesses a glorious bass voice and gave voice to the writings of Lincoln, Michael Lanning, who portrayed the Union Captain with an incredible emotional intensity, and Keith Byron Kirk, who (I hope) was absolutely riveting as Frederick Douglas and was the most mesmerizing actor on stage.

Overall, the show is not as bad as I feared nor as good as it could have been. It is a worthy experiment, however, and worth seeing for what it is; an attempt to make sense of a conflict that is still dividing us today. The Civil War continues its tour of the United States.




- Jonathan Frank



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