By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As opening nights go, Dallas Theater Center's October 30 season premiere of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was a resounding dud. Before a house stuffed with local dignitaries, board members, trophy wives, donors and press, the show started nearly a half-hour late, delayed by dull speeches from portly millionaires congratulating themselves, again, for bankrolling the building of the new Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre and the Winspear Opera House.
It's never a good idea to precede frothy comedy with what sounds like award presentations at a Six Sygma retreat. On this occasion the old rich guys sucked so much air out of the room, it took Midsummer's cast nearly an hour of hard romping to wake everyone up again. Things never quite fell together in that night's performance. Even in the livelier second act's merry nonsense with the Rude Mechanicals and the pop-music-infused triple-wedding banquet, the energy sagged.
Might have helped if the elites had loosened up and dared to laugh. Stiffs, the bunch of them. Mayor Tom Leppert, seated in the second row, was so expressionless he looked embalmed.
Good move then to return to the Wyly at a regular Sunday matinee to see Midsummer again amid a more diverse, alert, good-natured audience—folks there to see theater and not just be seen. Here now were scads of little kids, high school and college students, families, Shakespeare nuts, first-timers and ordinary subscribers eager to get a look at this unusual new space and its "performance chamber," as the architects call it.
The show still went up 10 minutes late, thanks to some misinformed ushers who repeatedly led patrons to wrong rows. But the bobbles didn't harsh the happy buzz. From the get-go, laughs were loud and long for Shakespeare's cartoony comedy about young love, old family feuds, the trickery of invisible spirits and, in a recurring theme of the Bard's, how hard it is to put on a good play. The fizzy vibe continued right through the 15-minute "celebration" that ends the revels in a freeform onstage dance party showering audience and actors in a blizzard of bubbles, balloons and beach balls.
This Midsummer, directed by DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty, really is all about making a direct connection to an engaged, receptive young audience—the future of this company's support, not its stuffy old guard. Inspired in part by what he experienced at a Jonas Brothers concert, Moriarty has created an environment chock-full of kid-friendly gimmicks. Characters engage in Nerf ball fights and water-pistol wars. They break out of Shakespeare's speeches and into pop tunes by the Black Eyed Peas, Jay Sean and Jason Mraz. There are naughty jokes, nice kisses and not a single character dies, except for laughs.
The whole theater seems to bloom as the play goes on. Walls and floor in the Wyly begin as giant expanses of blackboard, chalked on by the play's young fairies drawing stars, moons, arrows and crowns—and later added to by audience members asked to fill up the walls with more scribbles at intermission. Scenic designer Beowulf Borritt has laid down a palette of gray diamonds on the thrust stage, like a schoolroom floor licking out toward the celery green audience seats. That argyle pattern is repeated in the black, white and gray contemporary separates worn by the mortal characters, the four lovers, in costumes by designer Claudia Stephens. The first glimpses of color come with the entrances of the fanciful creatures, elfin ringleader Puck (Cedric Neal) and the fairy kids, Mustardseed (Alexander Ferguson), Peaseblossom (Mallory Brophy), Moth (Amber Pickens) and Cobweb (Graham Dudley), who bound in from all sides in neon-pastel jeans, leggings and tees. (All the young fairies are students at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.) By the end of the play, the theater is bathed in yellows and reds in a surprise reveal of elements inspired by the cheerful work of late artist Keith Haring.
In this boxy interior of hard black surfaces and cold metal rails, Moriarty and his designers, including lighting whiz Tyler Micoleau, have softened the atmosphere and rounded the edges by sending actors into every part of it. The thrust serves as mere launch pad for much of the action. Midsummer's fairies and lovers pop up everywhere, yelling down from the corners of the top balcony, scampering across the metal bridge connecting the second balcony levels, spidering up and down ladders from the stage to the second and third floors. Actors crawl up and over seats, landing in the laps of theatergoers who suddenly find themselves face to face with Puck, spurned lover Helena (SMU theater student Abbey Siegworth) or one of the young sprites attending Fairy Queen Titania (Liz Mikel) or King Oberon (Matthew Stephen Tompkins).
All the chasing and climbing gets frantic—poor Puck goes up and down those ladders some 27 times— but then Shakespeare's play is constructed as a series of breathless chase scenes and ridiculous situations. Ri-donkey-lous, you might say.
The breakout star of this Midsummer Night's Dream is the man who plays its donkey, DTC company member Chamblee Ferguson, a longtime Dallas actor best known as Bob Cratchit in DTC's A Christmas Carol. After years of supporting roles, he finally gets a chance to shine as Bottom the Weaver, the main Rude Mechanical who tries to take the parts of Pyramus, Thisbe and the roaring lion in the silly play-within-the-play at the second-act wedding of mortal King Theseus (Bryan Pitts) and Hippolyta (Sally Nystuen Vahle). Bottom's fairy-dusted by Puck and turned into a braying beast. Titania, under the same spell ordered by Oberon, awakes and falls in love with him.