Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Theater Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream -- New Haven Festival of Arts & Ideas

Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: Simon Annand
This Midsummer Night’s Dream Has Some Nightmarish Elements
By Lauren Yarger
You know that dream where you find yourself naked on a stage with everyone laughing at you? It’s an unfortunate reality for Miltos Yerolemou, the actor who plays Bottom in Bristol Old Vic’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of New Haven’s International Festival of Ideas.

Director Tom Morris and the Handspring Puppet Company (the creative team which brought Joey, the War Horse to life on stage) have partnered for this new interpretation of William Shakespeare’s tale of fairy magic which includes puppetry and a literal transformation of Bottom into a talking ass.

To accomplish the effect, the designers (led by Vicki Mortimer) have created a mechanical devise on which Yerolemou can lie on his stomach on an incline while propelling himself around with hand pedals. His naked bottom, up in the air, becomes the head of the donkey. He bends his knees and costuming transforms his extended ankles and feet into the creature’s eyes and ears (Katerina Hicken, design). It gives new and unpleasant meaning to this portion of dialogue, spoken by Titania (Saskia Portway), tricked by the gods into loving Bottom:

Come, sit thee down upon this flowery bed,
While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,
And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head,
And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.

 It’s too bad, because before realizing they were going for a literal interpretation of the talking ass, I was thinking this might be a great production to which kids could be introduced to Shakespeare (and there were a lot of youngsters in attendance.) Previously, small puppets had been used to depict the love triangle between Hermia (Akiya Henry), her betrothed, Demetrius (Kyle Lima) and her true love, Lysander (Alex Felton). When Hermia’s father, Egeus (also played by Yerolemou) insists that his daughter wed a man she doesn’t love, the imagery of his pulling their strings is clear, even if the puppets themselves don’t have any. 

The actors, dressed in casual attire similar to their puppets, manipulate them by hand and voice their lines, but also interact with each other. In scenes that show Morris’ directing ability, fairies flutter (some of them demonic in nature), a number of wooden planks are used to depict various settings, puppets and humans become one and Puck is created by three actors manipulating an oil can, a saw and a basket. It’s sheer magic, when we can see -- the haze effect is used to overkill and Philip Gladwell’s lighting design leaves us in the dark sometimes. The first part is quite enchanting, however, until everything “bottoms” out.

The tale, often upstaged by the craft going on, seems to go downhill after that and even the puppets aren’t used to advantage when they could be. The scene where Hermia thinks Lysander’s affections have been transferred to Helena (Naomi Cranston) because she is taller would be so much funnier if his line, “Get you gone, you dwarf,” were delivered to the diminutive puppet instead of to the actress, for example.

The pace seems to slow way down in the second act as well and the final play within the play lacks humor and purpose. The final two, very large puppets, seem awkward and unfinished. I kept wishing I could wake up from this dream which runs two hours and 45 minutes.

A highlight, however, is music by David Price. One song has accompaniment by the actors tapping on those versatile wooden planks. Just the sort of thing one might expect to hear if one stumbled upon a bunch of fairies having prankish fun on a midsummer’s night.

A Midsummer Night's Fream runs through June 23 at University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven: Performances 8pm, June 18-22; 2 pm June 33 and 23. Tickets

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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