Arts & Events

Theater Review: A Real Dream in Midsummer Performance

By Steven Finacom
Tuesday August 03, 2010 - 01:26:00 PM
A muddy Puck faces off against one of Queen Titania’s camouflage-attired fairies in front of a portion of the audience.
Steven Finacom
A muddy Puck faces off against one of Queen Titania’s camouflage-attired fairies in front of a portion of the audience.
Cast warm-ups before the show took place in the oak-enclosed John Hinkel amphitheatre and formed an impromptu performance.
Steven Finacom
Cast warm-ups before the show took place in the oak-enclosed John Hinkel amphitheatre and formed an impromptu performance.

A group of current and former UCLA students, living locally during the summer, provided Berkeley with a most charming and vigorous dramatic interlude this past week. 

The two dozen thespians staged several free performances of their own interpretation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at John Hinkel Park. We saw the Thursday, July 29, show. 

There were no handbills or programs distributed or posted, so I can’t credit the actors by name. But there were some standouts. One indefatigable actor played Puck with creativity and manic poise (unfortunately, this being Berkeley, he performed in a manner uncannily reminiscent of a genuine lunatic who lives in our neighborhood. Oh well).  

A barrel-chested, stentorian, Bottom chewed up the scenery—a considerable task in a seven acre wooded park. The young women who played Helena and Hermia were extremely capable and convincing in their roles, particularly the former. The whole play-within-a-play—the absurd, doomed, courtship of "Pyramus and Thisby”—was a comic triumph by the entire cast. 

The production was undertaken almost entirely without artificial staging or ornate costumes. Lighting was a single street lamp. A few bales of hay, a single machete, a couple of torches, and branches and vines plucked from the local flora were about it in the prop department.  

Costumes consisted of current clothing thrown together to suggest characterizations, not elaborately designed, and for several scenes the cast and musicians reduced clothing to a rustic, bawdy, minimum—a literally chilling experience for these southerners who may not have been used to Berkeley’s foggy summer nights.  

Much of the cast performed barefoot. As the evening wore on, most of the audience probably pitied the young men and women who had to lie half-naked on the cold concrete, feigning sweet oblivion, for extended periods of time during the performance. 

The group made full and creative use of the setting. The play wove through the amphitheater, the surrounding slopes, and paths. Actors energetically romped up and down the seating tiers and side trails and took advantage of almost every wall, tree, thicket, and ivy tangle around the site. 

Particularly effective were the moments when cast members disappeared—often at a run or a bound—up the trails into the woods, carrying on singing or dialogue in the distance. The wooded ravines of John Hinkel Park proved an especially expressive Forest of Arden. 

In a way, despite the self-imported cast, the whole show was a turn back to Berkeley’s earlier days when amateur theatricals were common in the parks, churches, and community halls of the town.  

Although today’s renowned professional California Shakespeare Festival evolved and played for years in the same John Hinkel Park amphitheater—I imagine they also did “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” here—back when this arena was built, a considerable amount of live entertainment was provided by talented local amateurs.  

Community and club theatricals offered diversions to Berkeley residents in the era before movies, and then again before television. The City, for a time, sponsored dramatic competitions between home grown groups. All-volunteer pageants and performances were part of local life, from springtime to Christmas season, and many of them were held outdoors in spaces like these. 

This particular, well-loved, Shakespearean comedy has been done many times in Berkeley over the years. This event was the most recent installment in a notable sequence. 

Perhaps the most elaborate was in 1934 when Austrian impresario Max Reinhardt took the advice of one of his assistants, Berkeleyean Catherine Sibley, and brought his famous extravaganza of the play to not only San Francisco’s opera house but also the UC Berkeley campus. Reinhardt staged the first act in Faculty Glade; the cast, bearing lighted torches, then led the audience to the Greek Theatre for the second act.  

Olivia De Haviland (Helena) and Mickey Rooney (Puck) and James Cagney (Bottom) were featured in that live performance, which was later made into a classic film. 

Like this July’s performers, the 1934 show traveled up from Los Angeles, although one of the stars was homegrown. De Haviland, from Saratoga, had just been “discovered” and this was a breakthrough major professional role. 

How many Berkeley locals enjoyed the reprise last week? I don’t know, but not enough. At the Thursday night performance there were only about 60-70 spectators, and conversation in the crowd indicated that at least some of them had traveled up from Los Angeles to see their friends perform. I hope more Berkeleyans attended the weekend shows. 

We learned about the performances from a mention on the Berkeleyside blog. See 

That post provides more information on the group that staged the performance.