TOOELE — This weekend I had the privilege of reviewing in Tooele for the first time in UTBA (and the first time in Tooele County since 2012) as I attended a production of Shakespeare‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream produced by the new upstart Tooele Valley Theatre company and directed by Chad Henwood. Because I don’t usually seek out Shakespeare productions, I took this review assignment somewhat apprehensively. But Henwood’s production was the delightful evening out I didn’t know I needed, and it left me wanting more. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most produced scripts, but I don’t remember the last time I saw a production where the performers were loving what they were doing this much, and their passion and energy was infectious.
This outdoor production can be found off the beaten path, in a small shaded amphitheater in the hills on the south end of Tooele. The intimate outdoor setting was the perfect backdrop for this particular script where three character groupings include the Athenian lovers, woodland fairies, and a troop of actors rehearsing a play. The love triangles, magical spells, and fools are the premises for many comical moments that are woven together by the magic and mischievousness of fairy, Puck (played by Julianne Ferguson), and Henwood’s directorial magic.
The play opens at Theseus’s court, where Theseus (played by Henry Ballesteros), Egeus (played by Brae Bennion), and others the fate of Egeus’s daughter, Hermia (played by Lucile Johnson). Although she loves Lysander (played by Michael Moya), she is given the choice to either marry Demetrius (played by Nick Ellsworth), or enter a convent. As Lysander presents his case to Theseus, his speech pattern became a bit rhythmic and sing-song but fortunately was only a momentary distraction. The performers did well at establishing their characters from the start. I particularly enjoyed Helena, played by Devin Sheridan. There was no question in my mind that this actress understood her character. Her full use of her body, tone of voice, and facial expressions made clear what she was experiencing and expressing. Even an audience member who might have difficulty following Shakespeare’s language would have a clear and full understanding of Helena as Sheridan plays her. The scenes where Helena is chasing Demetrius through the woods were comical, yet done is manner that I could understand why the Titania (played by Cassidy Ellenberger) would want to come to her aid.
Henwood made an interesting choice in the reversing the roles of Titania, the fairy queen, and Oberon, the fairy king. Instead of it being Titania who is put under a love spell while sleeping, it was Oberon. I rather enjoyed this switch, and I saw it as a nice nod to Shakespeare’s day with cast were made entirely of men. I think that only Ballesteros, who played the Oberon, could have not only kept a straight face and matched Christopher James’s energy as he played the role of Nick Bottom. When Oberon awoke and fell in love with Bottom, with his head of an ass, I about died from laughter. The entire scene was delightfully awkward. Both characters were so cocky before the were effected by magic, that they perfectly fed off of one another’s confidences. I loved the choice of Henwood to add in a little Latin dance number between the two men, a touch that emphasized the absurdity of the whole first encounter.
As funny as Bottom was, he clearly was aided by the characters in the well-balanced acting troupe of “rude mechanicals.” I particularly enjoyed the performance of Owen Pashley as Francis Flute. His ability to create an entirely different voice when acting as a female was fun contrast to his regular voice for when the character was not acting. The troupe’s performance of the “Pyramus and Thisbe” play within a play was so funny that it wasn’t surprising to see the court members who were watching the performance genuinely laughing for real. Normally, breaking character is frowned upon, but in the cases I saw I felt that it only added to the overall feeling of fun in the show.
The technical aspects of this production were simple, but effective. A simple unit set, designed by Collin Ray, created to resemble stone ruins helped to add levels to the staging. My only concern with the staging was that I could see the performers retreating to backstage through the woods, which was especially awkward when Hermia was looking for Lysander and the actress would have really been able to see him from his offstage location. Staying fully in character until fully out of sight would improve the production a bit. Costumes, designed by Brianna Lyman, were simple and a well blended mix of modern and fairytale.
There were only a few moments that were not as strong as the rest of the production. For example, when Oberon was giving a speech in front of the fairies, Puck was an engage listener, but the rest of the fairies seemed disengaged and bored. Perhaps the cast members did not understand the language or were genuinely bored from hearing the speech so much in rehearsal. Regardless of the reason, it was a distracting break in the reality of the production’s world. The only other moment that I struggled with was when one of the fairies, which were predominately played by young performers, kept facing away from the audience while delivering her first few lines, making them almost impossible to hear. This is a common thing to happen with less experienced performers and it was the only moment that I noticed that being an issue which means the director did his job well; these young performers have an awesome opportunity to learn from working with some strong veteran performers.
I am so glad I took the chance on this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It isn’t necessary to love Shakespeare to make this production is well worth your time and the drive out to Tooele. There is so much talent tied into this production of seasoned actors along with younger performers. I look forward to seeing more productions produced by this new theatre company.