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.
In this production's best scenes, Ferguson makes a perfect ass of himself. He's a brilliantly agile physical actor, a tall, lean man with a rubbery grin and a high-beam twinkle in his eyes. Midsummer gets its biggest laughs when Ferguson is in control and center stage.
The audience also falls in love with Cedric Neal as Puck. Star of last season's opener, The Who's Tommy, Neal, also a DTC company member, speaks the Shakespeare with fine clarity, but he also is one hot singer and dancer. At the matinee, when he sang the first few notes of the Peas' "I Got a Feeling," kids in the audience squealed and cheered. (Ah, Mr. Moriarty, we see the method in your madness.)
As in the play itself, the weakest scenes in this Midsummer are among the four mismatched lovers: Helena (Siegworth is the cast's second-best physical comic), Demetrius (SMU student Matt Tallman), Hermia (SMU student Rukhmani K. Desai, whose voice at both reviewed performances sounded fried at the edges) and Lysander (DTC company member Lee Trull). Moriarty keeps them constantly on the move, up, down, all around the space, but running these characters ragged doesn't make their interactions any more interesting.
Good thing their scenes are bookended by the great stuff with those flirty fairies and the Rude Mechanicals (along with Ferguson, they are played by Joe Nemmers, Matthew Gray, Marcus M. Mauldin and Josh Greenfield).
Moriarty, now in only his second year at DTC, sends many messages with his choice of this play to intro his company's new home. Count on him to deliver some classics; that's one. But don't expect him ever to be predictable in how he presents them. He doesn't want a passive audience, that's certain. In all three of the shows he's directed for DTC thus far (Tommy and the biblical In the Beginning) he has forced the audience to participate, sometimes against their will.
He's also saying something in Midsummer about the history of the institution he now leads. Moriarty may be shocking some of the old-timers with his Jo-Bro take on the Shake, but some have to appreciate his nod to the legacy of Paul Baker, the great director who founded Dallas Theater Center in 1959 and who died at age 98 just a few days before the "new" DTC opened its doors downtown. Among the actors boogying under the disco balls at the joyous conclusion of Moriarty's A Midsummer Night's Dream is Robyn Baker Flatt, Paul's daughter, playing Hermia's mother in this production. Baker's radically abstract Hamlet ESP was a landmark moment at DTC four decades ago. Characters drew on walls in that one too.
Now to the Wyly Theatre itself. Yeah, it's an eye-popper by the genius architects at REX/OMA. The outside is wrapped in "aluminum extrusions," which are as silvery as candy wrappers in the late afternoon sun. But what about the inside, where people go to be entertained?
Well, to get there requires more walking than the short car-to-door trek at the old Kalita Humphreys Theater. From the nearest DART stop on Pearl Street, it's 849 steps from the tracks to the Wyly entrance. That's almost a quarter-mile. It's closer from the underground parking garage beneath the Winspear Opera House. But that costs $10 and is accessible only from the eastbound service road of the now-closed Woodall Rodgers Freeway.
The Wyly lobby is below street level. You can risk breaking a high heel or twisting an ankle on the steep downhill incline (bound to be a treat when it's icy) or take the safer but slower paved switchback (meant for wheelchairs) or clomp down 25 wide-spaced steps to the front doors.
There is one ladies' room. It's in the lobby. There are 15 stalls. The theater seats 600. Male architects have never had to stand in line in the lobby for 15 minutes to take their turn to relieve themselves.
Sightlines in the balconies are terrible. Sitting back in my seat in the center of the first row of that top tier at the matinee, I could not see one square foot of the thrust stage. To see the actors, we balcony-dwellers had to lean forward over the balcony rail for the entire show. That is not fun.
Also, the pretty green seats are as hard as church pews, and the rows afford less leg room than airline coach class. This highly touted high-tech "theater machine" was made for the artists, not the audience.
To get to the seats, it's 35 steps up a dimly lit staircase to reach the first audience level. It's 35 more up an even darker set of stairs to the second balcony. Or there are elevators, which may or may not let you off at the right floor.
You could end up trapped, as I did, in the tiny dark vault between the closed elevator doors and the door onto the balcony. This happened at the end of intermission at the Midsummer matinee. I stepped alone off the elevator on the top balcony, the doors glided shut behind me and when I turned the handle on the door into the theater, it was locked—gulp. There was no button to recall the elevator. I knocked loudly. Nothing. I heard the second act music start. Rising panic. I pushed what appeared to be an emergency button and heard a robo-voice say, "Your call has been recorded." Still nothing. Long minutes went by. The elevator finally came back up. I rode down and climbed 70 steps in darkness back to the top balcony.
Oh, what fools these portals be.