SALT LAKE CITY — This all-male cast of Shakespeare‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not a show you want to miss. The Grassroots Shakespeare Company 2012 summer tour began last weekend with performances in Moab, Salt Lake City, and Orem. Along with this year’s productions of Twelfth Night and Hamlet, the Grassroots production of Midsummer is traveling across the Wasatch Front performing in parks for free to the gathering public.
Those last three words are where the magic happens: the gathering public. Saturday’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream took place at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, nestled on the north side of the large hill that borders the lake. What started out as 20 patrons quickly grew to over 100 by the time the performance ended.
Are you familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream? By far it’s one of the most produced Shakespeare works in Utah. It follows the tale of two pairs of lovers enchanted in the woods by the fairy king’s loyal servant, Puck. Hate turns to love; doting turns to spite. Couple that with a group of humble amateur actors gathered together to rehearse a play for the duke surprised when one of their company is magically changed into an ass, and you have a riotous evening. When staged in the twilight of an early June evening, honestly there’s nothing quite like it.
Grassroots embraces the open air with their plank stage atop wine barrels, lovingly assembled at each new location along their tour. Costumes are fashioned together by each actor, music and sound effects are created offstage by fellow actors with drums, whistles, guitars, and an accordion. When the sun does set, the stage is illuminated by two lanterns placed in the front of the crowd.
The action of the play is both approachable for newcomers to the Bard and wittily interpreted for the practiced scholar. While many of the actors play several roles, I found great detail placed on making those transitions clear to the audience and a full investment into each character. Whether those were the foiled roles of Hipolyta and Titania by Alex Ungerman, or Davey Morrison Dillard’s dramatic switches between Hermia (who oddly reminded me of mixture of a sixteen-going-on-seventeen year old girl and Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth) and Robin Starveling, I was delighted by the care that each actor took in crafting every role.
I trusted each actor on the stage implicitly. Daniel Whiting’s portrayal of Nick Bottom carried with it a mentorship with the audience that convinced me to break out from my reserved position as a spectator and yell, “Let him roar again!” to Snug the Joiner in the final play. Levi Brown’s Theseus/Oberon commanded the stage, and yet I felt completely comfortable as he pranced onstage while music from the popular game Zelda was fluted from offstage. It’s a shame to not name everyone involved (and this is something we often talk about behind the scenes at the UTBA), but truly this company is a tight-knit group of actors with a firm knowledge of their companies mission and the talent to execute it well.
How could the production be improved? To be perfectly honest, the faults I find in any Grassroots production generally arise from my expectations of what we think theatre should be. We’re quite used to a clear director’s voice, unified costume design, precise music underscoring, and an interpretation of the script that is so set that it can be repeated without much variation for audience after audience, night after night. Grassroots rebels against that. My gut says their shows could benefit from a director’s voice and a bit more rehearsal. But the lack of those two elements creates an immediacy and excitement with each performance that I don’t want to lose.
It’s that battle between the expected and the Grassroots’ mission that will divide audiences. The strength in Grassroots future, I think, is their continued study into original practices. Participation in this past year’s American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Conference certainly brings legitimacy to their mission. That continued emphasis on their own education and the education of their peers and public is what will define Grassroots as a group worth recognizing.
I’ve long praised Grassroots as one of the most exciting groups Utah theatre has to offer and I’ll continue to do so. I’m thrilled for their success in this their third year and look forward to continued growth. They’ve already started a sister company in London, UK. Given the quality of this production and the unique contribution that the Grassroots Shakespeare Company makes to the theatre community in Utah and elsewhere, I would not be surprised to see additional Grassroots companies pop up in other parts of the nation sometime very soon.