At its most reverent, the works of William Shakespeare can be solemn, hard to follow and designed to be so strict that an audience can be worn out.
But during his day, Shakespeare loved the riotous and sometimes bawdy joys of a stage where love may be in the air, but it doesn’t have to be surrounded by iron clad fences.
Welcome to Optimist Theatre’s splendid and rollicking production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" that opened Thursday night at the stunning outdoor stage in Kadish Park. It is the sixth summer production of free Shakespeare in the Park and a worthy contender for a summer night of fun.
Director Ron Scot Fry has moved the shenanigans to the decade of the '60s – complete with free love, free poetry, free music and free sex – and embraced the joys and jokes from Haight Ashbury, the San Francisco epicenter of the movement of hippies, all who loved them and all of whom they loved.
"Midsummer" is one of the most oft-performed of the works of Shakespeare, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s got everything a love story should.
It has forests and fairies, lovers found, lovers lost and lovers fought for. It has romance, and it has urchins and dancing girls and, in this production, a guitar shredded like the best you’ve ever heard from Hendrix.
Like so many of his plays, the decision of who you should love is at the heart of "Midsummer."
Hermia (Kristin Hammargren) has been told by her father Egeus (Jeffry James Ircink) that she must marry Demetrius (Tom Sebald). But she is in love with Lysander (Shayne Steliga) and we are off and running.
Demetrius loves Hermia, even though he is being doggedly and frantically pursued by Helena (a sweet and determined Kat Wodtke). Eventually, as is always the case in Shakespearean comedies, all good things come to those who wait and who are willing to traipse through the mine-laden fields of the land of love.
One of the most interesting things about this production is how a 400-year-old language has been made to sound as natural and familiar as our own. It’s really a surprise.
Acting Shakespeare is difficult. There are actors who devote their lives and years and years of training to be able to get it right. And while this production isn’t perfect, with some of the scansion missing a beat or two, it’s amazing to see this young and relatively inexperienced cast hit things so well.
The text work done by dramaturg ML Cogar is on point and has paved a clear path for the best of the Shakespearean language to ring loud and clear.
Of course, there are several veteran Milwaukee actors who set the bar at a high level for everyone to try and jump to.
Tom Reed as Puck embodies the word to which he gave his name – puckish – with a frolicking and mischievous style that creates such great humor. Meanwhile, Todd Denning as Oberon and Theseus and Malkia Stampley as Titania and Hippolyta (that’s two pair, him and her and him and her) are such experienced players that they both grasp and convey the essence of their characters.
For sheer laughs, the aptly named Bottom is perhaps the most difficult role, but it's handled so unexpectedly and hilariously broad by Chris Flieller, who has all the pomposity, guile and outrageousness that makes Bottom one of the great and demanding roles in the entire Shakespeare canon.
Optimist is a company that works each summer on a shoestring to bring top quality Shakespeare to everyone, for free. They pass buckets during intermission to help raise money.
I can’t imagine a summer without something from this company as wonderful as this production, so dig a little deeper and help keep this ship afloat on a summer breeze kissed sea.
"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" runs through July 19 and information on show times is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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