WEST VALLEY CITY — As a huge proponent of arts education, I am thrilled that one of Utah’s premier acting companies, the Utah Shakespeare Festival, has launched an intermountain West tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After an engaging presentation of a classical work, the talk back with the actors after the performance revealed a unified love of the theater arts and Shakespeare that is valuable to children, at-risk youth, and adults alike.
Nevertheless, I believe there is a fine line between educating with enthusiasm and pandering, and this production danced over that line a hair too far. The cloying sweetness of the large portion of this A Midsummer Night’s Dream—an already fairly accessible Shakespeare play—practically gave me a toothache. The concept was, in a word, adorable: the characters stepped out of a storybook and onto the stage. I understand this interpretation. I agree that Shakespeare was never meant to be studied in a classroom, and I see where they were going with the whole “fairy tale” concept, as this story is a fairy tale in its own right. The set pieces and backdrop looked like pages from a book, and Puck began the show as a young reader exploring the work for the first time. It was cute. It was really cute. Did I already use the word cute?
Egregious sacchariferousness aside, there was a bouncy, effervescent quality to the play that I liked. The actors were all double cast in the roles, which lent a lightning pace and rapid-fire movement as Demetrius (Alexis Baigue) became Bottom the Weaver and Hermia (Stefanie Resnick) became Quince and Peaseblossom and audience members became the Wall and Moonshine. A great deal of dialogue was eliminated, but not so much that people who don’t have the play memorized (me) would notice. This cutting worked well as an introduction to the bard’s work. The set pieces were on wheels and swirled around the stage as the scenes began and ended rather than having full-on set changes, which I really appreciated. Touring shows have to worry about being pliable and flexible as all stages and venues are different, and technical director Elizabeth Marquis handled these aspects of the show incredibly well. The grassroots, makeshift feel was very appealing to me, and an authentic shot in the arm to this atypical interpretation.
All of the acting was fairly similar—loud voices and bright faces that let the script do all the heavy lifting—but the comedy was decently managed, particularly on the part of Karen Thorla as Egeus/Helena/Snug the Joiner/Mustardseed. I found Thorla’s gangly Helena kind of perfect. Her annoyance and dismay at believing herself the butt of the joke refreshingly real at times, like eating a steak after having cotton candy rubbed on your face. Her scene chasing after Demetrius, professing her undying love to one who spurns her, was innocent and matter-of-fact, making a moment that could otherwise be viewed as pathetic a strong point for the character. She knew who she was and what she wanted, and if she had to chase a dude through the woods to get there, so be it. Thorla’s Snug the joiner was absolutely my favorite part of the play. One of the most underappreciated characters of Midsummer, Snug is a gentle creature who just wants to do the right thing, and Thorla’s pipsqueak mewling as she tried to master a lion that would not “fright the ladies” was endearing and hilarious.
One of my favorite aspects of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is how absolutely frenetic it is, and how it can lead to some fantastic physicality. On that part these actors did not disappoint. Every tumble, jump, lunge, spill, leap, and thumb-sucking was artfully and joyfully executed like an hour-and-a-half long dance. Moves that surely took a lot of practice, trust, fearlessness, and rubber limbs were made to look effortless by these little jumping-bean actors as they toppled through one of Shakespeare’s silliest works with jubilant effort.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of my first experiences with Shakespeare, and it is a good way to dip a toe in. Parents of young children should take advantage of this free production, as it really is just an exuberant bit of fun that will not overwhelm.