KidsOutAndAbout Reviews A Midsummer Night's Dream at Geva Theatre Center
by Helena Robin
Photos by Ken Huth
With A Midsummer Night's Dream, Geva Theatre Center concludes its 40th Anniversary Mainstage season. And what a way to end it! This production is part of a program from the National Endowment for the Arts called Shakespeare for a New Generation...and trust me, it is! Aimed at rethinking and re-imagining Shakespeare's reputation as the Bane of High School Students Everywhere, this production brings a modern flavor to this 400-year-old play while staying true to its roots.
Most parents are at least vaguely familiar with more than one of Shakespeare's plays – Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Richard the Third, The Merchant of Venice, and, of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With the exception of Romeo and Juliet, it might be a difficult task to explain the storyline to our kids on the fly; for most of us, the last time we read the plays was in high school or college. But that is exactly what you should do before heading over to Geva's Midsummer Night's Dream with your kids: Trust me, they--and you!--will get the most enjoyment from the performance this way.
And, in the spirit of everything KidsOutAndAbout stands for, I'm going to help you out with a quick-and-dirty Helena's Notes Guide: A Midsummer Night's Dream 101. Print this out and bring it along with you, and you won't go astray.
The Athenians are led by veteran actors Keith Hamilton Cobb (you may recognize his name from “The Young and the Restless” and “All My Children”) who plays Theseus (and Oberon) and Broadway star Carly Street who plays Hippolyta (and Titania). I especially love Hippolyta as the aloof former Queen of the Amazons. She reminds me of a bird of prey who is struggling to come to terms with having her wings clipped.
Sheldon Best and Ian Holcomb both do a great job of flip flopping along with their characters’ emotional switches. They have the audience laughing out loud on more than one occasion. Kaliswa Brewster is a very lovely, gentle young woman who turns into a tiny ferocious hell-cat during the hilarious scene where the four Athenians come together in the forest. But I have to say that my favorite performance in this production comes from Emily Kunkel who plays Helena. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was reminded of a young Carol Burnett! Kunkel brings a tremendous amount of personality, humor and physical presence to her role. Her modern interpretation makes it easy to know what she is feeling when her Shakespearean lines might otherwise befuddle us.
As for the Fairies, my favorite is Keith Hamilton Cobb as Oberon. He looks like Jimi Hendrix with shorter hair and brings that same rock-star quality to the character. Swaggering (did you know that Shakespeare invented the word and used it for the first time in this play?!?) across the stage and manipulating the lives around him, Cobb perfectly portrays this difficult-to-like character.
Titania is played by Carley Street, who portrays the Fairy Queen as a vaguely sad, lonely woman who is struggling to find happiness independent of her marriage. Her loyal fairy attendants are played by adorable local kids who range in ages from around 5 to 17 (there are actually two casts of fairy attendants). Rebecca Rand, who is the sole actress in the First Fairy role, gives a marvelously sweet performance and sings like an angel.
The Mechanicals are a delightful ensemble of characters with a broad age range and a consistent ability to perform as a well-oiled, hilarious machine. Each one has at least one moment of absolute deliciousness. Whether it is the super expressive Brian O’Connor who plays Nick Bottom, the weaver who is turned into a donkey-headed man, or Ron Menzel who plays Francis Flute, the bellows-mender cast as Thisbee (a very unattractive woman) in the Mechanical’s play, they all shine like delightful, unsophisticated jewels.
Costumes and Sets
Magical, gorgeous, mysterious, airy, otherworldly – all of these words can describe both the costumes and the sets! It makes sense that the Fairies and the forest have the most elaborate and detailed costumes and settings since they are so far removed from the everyday, brightly lit Athenian world that the play starts out in. The giant full moon in the background of the Forest scenes (and the lighting designer) creates a moody, shimmery atmosphere which lends itself to magical mischief. Tiny lights that blink throughout the performance are sprinkled throughout the woodland setting. It’s made complete with giant old trees draped with hanging moss, creating dark caves within which Oberon and Puck find plenty of places for concealment.
After you have marveled at the stage, make sure you check out the display in the lobby during intermission which describes the process for creating the tree bark!
I don’t want to spill the beans too much about the fairies’ costumes – but I will say that they aren’t what I expected! These fairies are certainly more interesting to look at than the ones I’m used to seeing!
Geva’s A Midsummer Night's Dream is a lush, wild and hilarious trip to a time and place that, even in the Elizabethan Era, exists only in our imaginations. The acting and staging are so strong that even if your kids don’t understand some of the lines or story, they’ll love it anyway!
Again, I recommend going over the characters and basic plot with your kids in advance so that they’ll be able to follow along with the action even when they have no idea what the Shakespearean language is communicating. My only criticism is that, for some reason, every production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream insists upon mispronouncing
A Midsummer Night's Dream is the perfect introduction to Shakespeare for kids who are into fantasy, sci-fi, history, mythology or even reality TV. Instead of being a dry, old-fashioned, incomprehensible experience, Geva's production has made it very easy for kids to relate to it in one way or another. One of the great things about Geva is that it's an intimate theater, which makes it easy to become drawn into the performances so you feel like you're part of the action. If your kids have the patience to sit through a few slower, more dialogue-filled moments (which are rare in A Midsummer Night's Dream--it's the most rolicking of the Shakespeare plays), then they are sure to become absorbed by the story.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream 101
There are three groups of characters in the play: The Athenians, the Fairies, and the Traveling Performers (a.k.a. the Mechanicals). Each of these three groups has its own story, which becomes entwined with the other groups at different points throughout the play.
The Athenians: Theseus is the Duke of Athens and, as such, is the arbiter of Athenian justice. His wife is Hippolyta, the former Queen of the Amazons. Since Theseus conquered the Amazons, Hippolyta is literally his trophy wife! Next we have Egeus, a wealthy citizen whose daughter, Hermia, refuses to marry the man he has chosen for her. Why? Because she is in love with another man named Lysander. To complicate matters, Hermia’s best friend, Helena, is madly in love with Demetrius – the man Hermia is supposed to marry. Poor Helena – Demitrius loves Hermia. It’s a mess!
The Fairies: The King of the Fairies is Oberon; a capricious, vindictive, selfish guy who administers a kind of heavy-handed justice in the name of fairness. He is estranged from his wife, Titania, who has made him jealous by raising the Indian son of her deceased human companion. Titania is annoyed with Oberon because he is a less than perfect husband. Puck is Oberon’s sidekick who is part court jester and part henchman. He is a fairy very in touch with his feral, amoral side and does whatever Oberon tells him to do.
Oberon decides to involve himself in the Athenian love quadrangle after spying on them in the forest. He sends Puck out to find a magical flower that Cupid’s arrow has grazed, which has imbued it with the essence of Love. This flower has the power to enchant anyone who has the (mis)fortune of being brushed by the petals. The result is that the first thing the enchanted person sees becomes the object of their unending devotion.
The Mechanicals: This funny group of traveling performers actually have humble day jobs – weaver, carpenter, bellows-mender, tinker and joiner. They set out to perform a play written by their leader, Quince (the carpenter) at a wedding they’ve heard will take place in Athens. (You guessed it--or maybe you're already confused and didn't--the wedding of Hermia and Demetrius.) Their hope is that they will make a little extra money and gain fame throughout the land.
Puck and the Flower: Oberon sees Helena and Demetrius in the forest and wants to help her out, so he tells Puck to get the magic flower and anoint the eyes of the Athenian man with it.
Unfortunately, the first Anthenian man Puck sees in the forest is Lysander. When Lysander wake sup, the first person he sees is Helena, which causes him to reject Hermia. The other person Oberon tells Puck to anoint is his wife, Titania, to make her fall in love with some creature of the forest. Oberon then plans to blackmail her into giving him custody of the child of whom he is so jealous.
Puck thinks this is a great idea, but to make it even more hilarious (for him and Oberon), he turns one of the Mechanicals – Nick Bottom - into a Donkey-headed man, and makes sure that he is the first “person” Titania sees when she wakes up. When Oberon realizes that Puck anointed the wrong Athenian man, he orders him to go back and brush Demetrius with the flower so that he will return Helena’s love. So for a while, both Demetrius and Lysander are madly and competitively in love with Helena, and poor Hermia is scorned by both.
In the end, Oberon sends Puck to cure Lysander, Titania, and Nick Bottom. Titania gives custody of her foster child over to Oberon, and they are reunited, Theseus marries Hermia to Lysander and Helena to Demetrius, and the Mechanicals perform their very funny and tragic play (which is the story of star crossed lovers who both end up dead – sound familiar?).
For most of us, Shakespeare is an acquired taste. But once acquired, his plays become treasured touchstones for our own experiences. His stories deal with universal struggles, truths and dreams: moments we recognize even more than 400 years after they were written.
If you have ever said to yourself that "someday" you'll introduce your kids to Shakespeare, Geva Theatre Center's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is the perfect opportunity.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a long show: 2 hours and 45 minutes, to be exact. There is an intermission which allows for quick snacks, leg stretches and bathroom breaks. For the length alone, I don’t recommend bringing kids who are younger than 9 or 10, but you know your children best: If they typically enjoy stage productions, this Shakespeare production is for them. (Remember: Children under age 5 are not permitted at Geva.)
Kids 12 and under get half-price tickets to these performances! To receive the special pricing, you must call the box office at 585-232-1366 and mention the discount.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is on stage at Geva Tuesdays through Sundays through June 2, 2013.
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Helena Robin ...is President and CEO of the Robin family. She coordinates and executes all family operations including (but not limited to) communications, transportation, management, catering, maintenance, troubleshooting, and cultural development. Her Executive Team comprises a Husband/Creator of Chaos and three unpaid interns.