OREM — Summer Shakespeare performances are one of those seasonal delights that seem to have become more popular in the last few years. It’s a drastic change from the typical theatrical fare: sitting outside on the grass, watching a play with basically no set, no props, no costumes, all while actors walk right by you and encourage you to interact with the show. It’s a far cry from the small black boxes with their folding chairs or the massive auditoriums with cushy seats.
Utah Shakespeare in the Park (USP) is one of those perennial groups that puts together a couple of the bard’s shows every summer in this stripped down, hammed up fashion. Their first offering of the season is a light version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Anne Shakespeare and it’s worth looking into. It benefits from some good performances, though it does suffer from some common issues that surround outdoor performances.
The acting in the show tended to vacillate between a feeling of natural honesty and over-the-top comedy. I appreciated that the main goal of all the actors seemed to be clarity and communication for the sake of the untrained ear. Kat Webb and Sarah-Lucy Hill managed this feat through honest engagement with the text. Webb (as Helena) and Hill (as Hermia) both gave real definition to their characters. Webb played a truly lamentable and ill-used Helena while Hill’s Hermia was almost the opposite, bubbling her way to puppy-love filled, romantic elopement heaven. I also saw the start of a good relationship between the two (pre-forest that is) that was quite believable and made the later betrayals that much more painful to watch. One thing, though, that bothered me a little was the tendency for either performer to rush through her lines. This was usually done for comedic effect, sometimes almost as a challenge a la “Modern Major General,” but what it really meant was that large sections of dialogue were entirely lost. Maybe it’s the theatre nerd in me, but I love Shakespeare’s language. So even though I still could pick up on the emotions and the plot, I felt a little cheated for not getting to hear it in iambic pentameter.
Their counterparts, Demetrius and Lysander, played by Adam Argyle and Stephen Holder respectively, were also just about as opposite can be. This distinction between the manly, rugged Demetrius and the artsy pretty-boy Lysander, made for some truly humorous conflicts between the two. This portrayal almost made Demetrius out to be the villain, and Argyle played it well. It was a view that was new for me, and I think that it worked for the most part, though it did make his change at the end a little more confusing. In the beginning it felt like Demetrius wanted Hermia more for the power and the status than for love, there was no connection between them. Then during the show he is so brutal to Helena that it seems that he is almost incapable of love, only to declare his honest love for her at the end. It was just a little confusing, but it was an interesting choice to play him that gruff, and it was refreshing to see a different take on the character that I had never seen before.
I would say my favorite performances of the evening have to go to scenes featuring Puck (Jordan Kramer), Oberon (Casey Walker), and Titania (Anne Shakespeare). These three actors worked together like a well-oiled machine, and I felt that they were not only listening to each other on stage, but they were truly connected to the language itself. Walker in particular had a great blend of the classical language and a modern tonality. His comedic timing was in tune with the audience, and he was a joy to watch. Kramer as Puck also brought a lot of talent to the show and provided quite a bit of comedy. Kramer made Puck flighty and fun, and much of that came from Kramer’s physicality and his willingness to jump around, roll on the ground, etc. There were a few times when the jokes seemed a little bit forced or expected, but all in all a very strong portrayal of one of theatre’s most famous characters.
And I wouldn’t be able to talk about the performance without talking about the play-within-the-play. The Mechanicals, as they are affectionately known, were played by mostly by cast members doubling up, but they are led by the unflappable Bottom, played by Matthew Christensen. The night I saw the show, Christensen was the actor who was absolutely the best at taking audience reactions and incorporating them into his performance. It was pleasing to see the actor changing things about his performance to fit the reactions he was getting. The final play of Pyramus and Thisbe was a good culmination of the efforts of the mechanicals, but none was quite as funny as Bottom and his overly dramatic Pyramus.
For the most part, Anne Shakespeare’s direction was a little two dimensional. I mean that quite literally actually, most of the scenes were played right up against the audience without many of the pictures extending back beyond that point. This is mostly due to not having a set of any kind and wanting to have the audience involved in the production. And while I appreciated the use of various levels in the production, there was quite a bit of action that happened on the ground that was difficult for the audience to see with since most of them were on the ground as well, this is an issue that many outdoor performances deal with. And though I appreciate the audience interaction, I felt that many of the entrances through the audience were awkward and unnecessary. It’s easy enough to do when there are aisles between seats, but continuously traversing over families and picnic blankets started to feel a little tedious.
These issues by no means ruined the night, and as the show runs just around an hour and half, you would be hard-pressed to find a reason not to go see this free show in the park. It’s a good show that makes for a fun evening and it’s Shakespeare that is quite accessible. It’s hard not to advocate for that.