by Roseann Cane
During a talk-show interview some years back, Mel Brooks relayed an anecdote about a fight he had with his late wife, Anne Bancroft. The shouting escalated, and Brooks became so frustrated that he grabbed his wife by the shoulders. “How dare you put your hands on my instrument!” Bancroft exclaimed. Brooks paused, and then said, “Can ya play Melancholy Baby?”
Most actors are taught early on to regard their bodies as instruments, that an integral part of their skill set, in addition to the characterizations they create and the dialogue they speak, is the physiological component: breathing, voice, movement. One thing I always look forward to when I attend a Shakespeare & Company play is the troupe’s beautifully honed physicality, the seemingly bottomless well from which their actors of all ages draw their energy and stamina.
And so it was with the company’s outdoor production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, which just opened at The Dell at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox. Outdoor theater provides significant challenges to those who perform it. They are at the mercy of Mother Nature and modern technology alike, challenged by changes in weather, low-flying aircraft, unpredictable insects, and an audience less inclined to stay seated and quietly attentive than they would in a more formal indoor theater. I’m delighted to report that the cast and crew of A Midsummer’s Night Dream not only rose to the challenges, but, for the most part, embraced them.
I’ve seen so many productions of this play over the decades that I’ve lost count. Fairly or un-, it’s a little difficult to surprise me. But I knew I was in for something special from the moment my companion and I entered The Dell. Some of the actors casually milled about and greeted audience members as we searched for a spot to place our folding chairs. Because the grounds open 90 minutes before the show begins , the actors have ample time before they dress and prepare for the show, and I found it refreshing that they greeted and exchanged pleasantries with us.
Director Jonathan Croy was charming and low-key as he explained to the audience the fight call exercises the actors were doing. (Duels and other fights in plays are tightly choreographed by experts, and it is customary, and necessary, that the actors have a rehearsal, a “fight call,” before every show.) Another lovely touch, I thought; there’s no reason that people who are not theater professionals would otherwise know this, and I believe it strengthened the bond between audience and cast.
And oh, what a cast! A mix of Shakespeare & Company regulars and newcomers, many of these young actors had participated in the Company’s Northeast Regional Educational tour of the show, and they were engaging, hilarious, and acrobatic. With a few minor exceptions, they made themselves heard and seen despite the expansive outdoor wooded space, a whimpering baby, and the occasional low-flying aircraft. There was one unusually loud and extended flyover during which the actors continued speaking and they were impossible to hear, but I’m sure that the performers are unable to discern the differences between noise levels, so I think it only fair to chalk that up to the vagaries of outdoor theater.
I was disappointed that I was unable to see a substantial amount of downstage action because of the location of my seat. There is a “blanket zone” (a designated place for those sitting on blankets rather than chairs) right before the stage, and I wonder how many people in rows above that zone missed out on the action, too. This is really my only quibble with the direction; Croy and Douglas Seldin kept the action going at a wonderfully zany pace, expertly weaving contemporary songs, acrobatics, and surprises that are thoroughly engaging. I loved the interactions between actors and audience throughout the play, and in the hope that you will go, I’ll withhold any description.
Thomas Randle is outstanding as a sharply drawn, wickedly funny Puck. He is certainly one of the most fully realized, devilish Pucks I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Also delightful were Caroline Calkins as Hermia; Madeleine Rose Maggio as Helena; and as the motley group of actors, the Rude Mechanicals, who perform Pyramus and Thisby, Tim Dowd (Nick Bottom), Caitlin Craft (Snug), Rory Hammond (Peter Quince), Mairead Koehler (Tom Snout), Leon Schwendener (Francis Flute), and Dara Silverman (Robin Starveling).
The splendid faeries (David Bertoli as Oberon; Kate Kenney as Titiania; and some aforementioned actors who doubled as faeries, including Rory Hammond and Madeleine Rose Maggio) were a feast for the eyes in their jewel-toned costumes, designed by Govane Lohbauer. All of Lohbauer’s costumes, in fact, a potpourri of period mixes, mostly Edwardian, were stunning and eccentric in the best possible way.
Hats off to director Croy, who also designed sets and sound. While I found the music and sound effects well-chosen, their execution left something to be desired. The sound quality seemed a little ragged, and each time we heard music, it came to an abrupt stop, rather than fading out.
This family-friendly show, abridged to 90 intermissionless minutes, would be a great introduction to Shakespeare for children. A talk-back with the cast follows the show, and the cast members were friendly and forthcoming. You may bring your own chairs or rent them. You may also bring a blanket to sit in the aforementioned Blanket Zone, which is available a bit later than the rest of the seating area, which opens 90 minutes before the show. Picnics are encouraged. In the event of rain, the company will stop the show and invite you back for no additional charge.
The Shakespeare and Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, directed by Jonathan Croy, runs from July-August in The Dell at The Mount, 2 Plunkett Street in Lenox MA. Costume Design by Govane Lohbauer; Vocal Coaches Gwendolyn Schwinke & Ariel Bock; Stage Manager Cindy Wade; Wardrobe Elizabeth Bray CAST: David Bertoldi as Oberon, Caroline Calkins as Hermia, Tim Dowd as Bottom, Lori Evans as Egeus, Rory Hammond as Peter Quince/Cobweb, Luke Haskell as Lysander, Kate Kenney as Titania, Mairead Koehler as Snout, Caitlin Kraft as Hippolyta/Snug, Madeleine Rose Maggio as Hippolyta/Snug, Devante Owens as Theseus, Thomas Randle as Puck, Thomas Reynolds as Demetrius, Leon Schwendener as Flute, Dara Silverman as Philostrate/Starveling.