The magic doesn’t really begin at SF Shakes’ production of A Midsummer Night's Dream until the staged rise of an enormous crescent moon, above the festival's most inventive set piece, designed by Neal Ormond: a massive, hollowed-out tree trunk fitted with charming “mushroom” platforms for the play's fairies to gambol and sleep upon.
It's when the fairies enter, in a blur of sequins and chatter, that the play settles into itself. With their presence, they signal its fantastical core, a realm where disbelief must be willingly suspended. It's a realm where Amazons wed, lovers’ messy quadrangles become sport for mischief-makers, and a loud blowhard might become a literal ass.
Here is “proud Titania” (Livia Gomes Demarchi) and her overbearing consort Oberon (Stephen Muterspaugh) arguing over the fate of a changeling boy in her charge. Here is the impish Puck (a long-limbed, green-haired James Lewis) and a cacophony of fairy folk to accompany the proceedings and score it with their drums. There is little nuance in the action. The outdoor setting, the multi-generational audience, the still-persistent light of the sun (Free Shakespeare in the Park’s evening shows start at 7pm this year) all demand a less-than-light touch by the performers onstage, even when inhabiting the characters of woodland sprites.
The works of William Shakespeare mean many things to different people, but love them or hate them, it’s hard to argue with their staying power. And while seeing them in the pomp and grandeur of a well-appointed theater can be a rich sensory experience, to see them outdoors in the company of anyone who can afford the price of "free" is an experience more akin to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan times, where theater was often performed in low-cost public houses and served as entertainment for audiences far more diverse than just the monied elite.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect example of this kind of multi-purpose, populist comedy: allusion to ancient mythology (the central human characters include Athenian hero Theseus and the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, played respectively by Muterspaugh and Demarchi), roles for musicians and acrobats, moments of lewd “low” humor, and a willingness to not let finer plot points stand in the way of a mostly happy ending.
True, San Francisco Shakespeare Company’s version, directed by company Artistic Director Rebecca J. Ennals, is hardly a flawless production. Even with the roles doubled, the cast numbers close to 20, not all of whom deliver as polished a performance as seasoned SF Shakes veteran Michael Ray Wisely as the bombastic Bottom. During the July 8 performance there were persistent sound issues as actors wandered in and out of range of the mics, and a nearby spontaneous fireworks display threatened to steal focus from the pending onstage celebration of the joint weddings of Theseus and Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander (Patricia Austin and Akaina Ghosh), Helena and Demetrius (Lauren Spencer and Ed Berkeley).
But as the sun falls enough for John Bernard’s production lights to be added into the mix, and the fairy conspiracy to meddle in the tiresome love lives of mortals finally works to everyone’s advantage, it becomes easier to surrender to the production’s inherent charms: the musicality of the language, the clever asides, and the colorful costuming (designed by Hyun Sook Kim) inspired by forest floor and regal tapestry.
Each performer in a doubled role has a way of conveying the underlying similarities between the mortal and fairy counterpart. Demarchi’s regal disdain imbues both her Hippolyta and Titania with a do-not-mess-with attitude, Muterspaugh’s oratory tone serves both his Theseus and Oberon, and the Rude Mechanicals, a droll bunch of artisans trying their hand at playacting before the Athenian court, double aptly as the attendant fairies in Titania and Oberon’s magical realm, performing for the amusement of the greater court—that is to say, the assembled audience.
Speaking of the Rude Mechanicals, the often-broad cuts to their earnest play-within-a-play generally reduce their efforts to a single scene involving a wall and crude innuendo, but Ennals instead chooses to let them have their full moment in the spotlight, a choice received enthusiastically by the younger members of the audience, as wigs fly off, a lion meows coquettishly, and an over-the-top Paul Ruebens-as-Amilyn-worthy death scene sends up “serious theater” much as the entire plot of the play-without does.
Best of all, as a touring production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be seen not only in Pleasanton’s Amador Valley Community Park where it plays through July 15, but also in Cupertino, Redwood City, San Francisco’s Presidio, and McLaren Park—giving ample opportunity to see Shakespeare as Shakespeare might have seen it: under an open sky and in the company of “honest neighbors” and “gentles” all.
'A Midsummer Night's Dream' runs through Sept. 23 at various venues in Pleasanton, Cupertino, Redwood City, and San Francisco. No tickets required. More information and details here.