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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Great River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arthur's reviews of Shakespeare in Love and All's Well That Ends Well

Anna Sundberg, Leah Gabriel, Antonio Duke,
Silas Sellnow, Anique Clements, and Andrew Carlson

Photo by Dan Norman
The offerings at Great River Shakespeare Festival at this, their 15th season, run the gamut from one of Shakespeare's least often performed works, All's Well that Ends Well, to the most often performed of all his plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream. If you are one of many theatergoers who has seen A Midsummer Night's Dream, perhaps more than once, don't let that keep you from catching Great River's rendition. It is a total joyride, handily delivering all the fun and laughter the Bard implanted in the play, with fresh new laughs courtesy of Beth Gardiner's mirthful staging. Without departing from Shakespeare's narrative and sensibility, Gardiner gives the show a giddy rock and roll feel that instructs us to enjoy ourselves.

A Midsummer Night's Dream weaves together three storylines. The outer frame is set in Athens with Duke Theseus and the Amazon Queen, Hippolyta, planning their wedding. They are disrupted by Egeus, whose daughter Hermia refuses his choice of husband for her. He has chosen Demetrius, who indeed loves Hermia, but Hermia is deeply in love with another youth, Lysander and Lysander loves her in return. Adding to this muddle, Demetrius once was romantically tied to Helena, Hermia's best friend. Though his feelings for Helena have dissolved, Helena remains rabidly in love with him. The Athenian penalty for a daughter who refuses her father's marriage arrangements is death. Lysander and Hermia then plot to run off through the woods that night and be married away from Athens. Helena learns of this plot and, desperate to win Demetrius' approval, tells him of it.

The second plotline, set in the woods, features Oberon, King of the Fairies, and Titania, the Fairy Queen. They have been quarreling, and Titania departs with her attendant fairies. To humble his Queen, Oberon has his servant-fairy, the playful Puck, place a magic powder in Titania's eyes that will cause her to fall in love with the next creature she sees. Oberon observes Helena's unrequited love for Demetrius and gives Puck added instruction to put the same potion in the eyes of the Athenian youth so that he will fall in love with Helena when he awakens.

The third storyline depicts an amateur theater group, dubbed the Rude Mechanicals, who have been invited to perform at the imminent wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. They too are in the woods, away from competitor's eyes and ears, to rehearse a play written by carpenter Peter Quince. His actors are joiner Snug, bellows-mender Flute, tinker Snout and weaver Bottom. The play is a travesty and they are one and all terrible actors, but they are sincere and enthused to perform at the royal wedding. Puck happens upon them and on a lark transforms the most boastful of the lot, Nick Bottom, into an ass, then positions Bottom to be the first creature Titania spies after receiving the magic powder.

The three narrative strands are deftly interlinked, resulting in slapstick, wordplay, misdirected amorous escapades, and other forms of comic mayhem. This being soundly in the form of a classical comedy, there is never a question of things working out for all of these creatures, mortal and otherwise. The fun is in watching the confusion as they pursue their happy endings. Puck, always present and observing the commotion in the forest, takes us much satisfaction as we in the audience in watching these characters—not only Bottom—making asses of themselves, all in the name of love.

Though there are nineteen listed characters, only eight of the company's acting ensemble perform in this mounting, with all but one taking multiple roles. This casting decision adds to the firecracker energy of the piece, as actors exit and re-enter, in different form, but with continually rising intensity as the narrative rises to a crescendo. Zack Curtis, as Puck, is the actor with only one part. Curtis is not a typical wispy or diminutive Puck. Rather, his large frame makes him a conspicuous presence on any stage. In this Midsummer Night's Dream with his fairly constant presence at the side of the stage during scenes he is not actively a part of, Curtis' Puck wordlessly reflects on the action through facial expressions, posture, and gestures, fully enjoying—perhaps more than he should—the results of his mischief.. When called upon to be graceful, Curtis does very nicely, in a manner clearly meant as a parody of traditional Pucks.

The rest of the players do a marvelous job of shifting from one character to the next, fully inhabiting each in its turn. In particular, this production reveals a wonderful break-out performance by Silas Sellnow, whose resume as a juvenile actor included past seasons here as well as roles at The Children's Theater Company (adorable as Max in How the Grinch Stole Christmas a few seasons back), Theatre Latté Da, Park Square, and on other stages. Here he is outrageously funny as both the love-struck youth Lysander and as weaver Nick Bottom, who, if given his way, would singlehandedly play every role in the play, and shines as the Ass who becomes the object of Hippolyta's lust. His flair for physical comedy is outrageously good. He also offers several musical turns, lively tunes composed by Sellnow himself that are delicious treats.

Anna Sundberg is convincingly and hilariously lustful as bewitched Titania. Leah Gabriel is a humorously dejected lover as Helena, and is delightful as the opaque Snout, cast as a wall in the play-within-a-play. Anique Clements plays the headstrong Hermia with great finesse, and is charming as the timid Snug, forced to muster the fierce energy to act the part of a lion in the play. Antonio Duke is swell as Demetrious and as Flute, the leading lady in the play. Andrew Carlson is appropriately incensed as Hermia's father Egeus, and transforms into a comically nerdy Peter Quince, the Rude Mechanical's playwright and director. Benjamin Boucvalt is both properly regal as Theseus, Duke of Athens, and smug as Oberon, King of the Fairies.

Purists will notice that Gardiner's streamlined staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream leaves out the roles of Philostrate, Master of Revelry, who is in charge of Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding plans; Robin Starveling, another of the rude mechanical thespians; and an Indian changeling child who has been a ward of Hippolyta. Each of those characters make contributions to the play, but their omission here does not diminish the narrative, and allows for a somewhat more fleet-footed staging.

The physical production owes the most to Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz for his inventive lighting design, with descending lighted globes and a projected starry night upon the bare rear wall of the stage. The shifts of dark and light chart the passing of time and place. The set itself is bare, save for an overstuffed sofa that serves both the Duke and Amazon Queen, and the Fairy King and Queen. Rebecca Bernstein's costumes give the human characters a modern-dress look. For the rude mechanicals, these are playfully designed to reflect their respective occupations. The fairy characters are given an "other-worldly look", not the image of storybook fairies, but definitely not of the tangible world.

I have seen several Midsummer Night's Dream over the years, and this one is among the most entertaining, engaging, and well-conceived of the lot. When a show is done this well, no matter how familiar the material, it is always welcome back. Kudos to director Beth Gardiner and all involved.

Season 15 of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through August 5, 2018, at the Performing Arts Center of Winona State University, 450 Johnson Street, Winona MN. All's Well that Ends Well, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare in Love, and Venus in Fur play in rotation, with schedules changing weekly. Tickets for Mainstage productions: $25.00 - $49.00; for the Black Box: $25.00. Discount season passes for all four plays are available. For schedule of performances and other Festival events, and for tickets call 507-474-7900 or go to

Writer: William Shakespeare; Director: Beth Gardiner; Scenic Design: R. Eric Stone; Lighting Design: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein; Sound Design: Matthew Tibbs; Props Supervisor: Connor M. McEvoy; Composer: Silas Sellnow; Text Coach: Victoria Teague; Fight Choreographers: Benjamin Boucvalt and Doug Scholz-Carlson; Production Manager: Joseph Millett; Stage Manager: Daniel Munson; Assistant Director: Gaby Rodriguez; Assistant Stage Manager: Madison Tarchala; Assistant Costume Designer: Becca Updyke; Assistant Lighting Designer: Marissa Alejandro Diaz; Assistant Sound Designer: Sidney McCarty.

Cast: Benjamin Boucvalt (Oberon/Theseus), Andrew Carlson (Egeus/Peter Quince/Cobweb), Anique Clements (Hermia/Snug/Mustardseed), Zach Curtis (Puck), Antonio Duke (Demetrius/Flute/Moth), Leah Gabriel (Helena/Snout/Peasebottom), Silas Sellnow (Lysander/Bottom), Anna Sundberg (Titania/Hippolyta)

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