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“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opens this year’s Cal Shakespeare Festival

By Robert Hall, Special to the Daily Planet
Monday June 03, 2002

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” Lysander famously notes in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. 

East Bay weather can supply a bumpy ride, too. The California Shakespeare Festival is one of the season’s most pleasant events, but Mother Nature takes a hand in the experience, and her fickle temper forced artistic director Jonathan Moscone to put the best face on the brisk wind buffeting his bundled-up opening night crowd on Saturday. 

“Welcome to this beautiful but volatile space!” he said. Everyone laughed. The space, with its rolling green backdrop, is beautiful, but none of us had climbed the slope to the Bruns Theater in the Orinda hills for good weather. We’d come for good theater, and Cal Shakespeare delivered “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” sunny enough to ward off any chill.  

Moscone has cast the play in a Victorian mode, the women in hoop skirts, the men in swallowtail coats. That may be a surprise, but it turns out to be remarkably fitting. 

In the scramble to reinvent Shakespeare, theater companies run the risk of overproducing his work. Berkeley Rep nearly flattened Much Ado about Nothing last fall, but as Moscone proved in his recent Twelfth Night, he has a light touch. He may nudge Shakespeare, but he nudges him in the right direction, and his decision to render this well-known tale against a milieu of Victorian rigidity, in which women are expected to do what men tell them or else, gives the production a jolt. 

Don’t forget, though “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a comedy, it begins when a king threatens to execute a disobedient girl. Of course that dire note soon fades in favor of a more playful one. 

The play is a seemingly impossible tangle of angry parents, desperate lovers, mistaken identities, kings, queens, fairies, magic, transformations, journeys that end in lovers’ meetings and even a play within a play, but part of its magic is how Shakespeare threads all these loose ends into a happy dance at the play’s close. 

Moscone’s production is itself a happy dance, with help from talented associates. Set designer Riccardo Hernandez lays out a rich grassy sward for royals, rude mechanicals, lovers and fairies to romp on, adding a huge crescent moon, on which Titania and Bottom dally, and a giant picture frame to set off trees strung with enchanted lights. Meg Neville sews up more than a dozen handsome costumes, from Oberon’s rich East Indian robes to 

Hippolyta’s severe black silk. Lighting man Stephen Strawbridge supplies bright Athenian sunlight and mysterious forest gloom, and Kristina Forester and Sarah Jo Zaharako punctuate the drama with discrete but evocative music. 

As for the actors, they range from good to outstanding. J. Peter Callendar is strong and sonorous as both Theseus and Oberon, and Nancy Carlin is a richly passionate Titania. Brian Keith Russell makes a nicely restrained Bottom, 

Susannah Schulman is a hot and flirty Helena, Andy Murray grins wryly as a Cockney Puck, complete with bowler hat and spats, Elia MacDougall winds Hermia as tight as a clock, Colman Domingo makes a dandy Lysander, and Sky Soleil is a sturdy Demetrius. As Peter Quint, Anthony Fusco manages his amateur actors with fitting comic restraint, and Liam Vincent’s Thisbe is the funniest drag act since Dame Edna.  

Though Samuel Pepys found “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” “the most insipid, ridiculous play,” audiences have loved it for 400 years, and Cal Shakespeare’s sharply conceived production reminds us why. It’s performed at 100 Gateway Boulevard, Orinda, until June 23 and will be followed by productions of “Macbeth”, “The Seagull”, and “The Winter’s Tale”. For tickets call 510-548-9666.