THEATER: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' At Winter Solstice

Ken Bullock
Friday December 22, 2017 - 01:26:00 PM

"If I do 'A Misummer Night's Dream' for a third time, I thought, I'll do it as a holiday offering, one set in pagan Greece!"

So said Rey Carolino, who is indeed staging the Ninjaz of Drama's third production of The Bard's madcap comedy of lovers, fairies and the Rude Mechanicals right now, not under the midsummer sky in an amphitheater, but ground zero holiday season, at the intimate Phoenix Theatre near Union Square in San Francisco.

Watching the Ninjaz do Shakespeare is always a little revelatory, at least due to the clarity of the text as performed--passages as spoken and expressed through gesture and staging leap out as though never heard before, or never in just that way.

Even more subtly, there's the satisfaction in a sense of plasticity of form, maybe Shakespeare's own secret weapon, here in the expert cutting of the script and in the direction of the ensemble, the relation of scenes playing off each other, and of the different storylines that tangle up together to make the comic confusion of three separate worlds--the lovers, who are of the upper class of Athens (including Duke Theseus--Christopher P. Kelly, courtier Philostrate, Lisa Bettini--and the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, Laurel Scotland-Stewart--and Hermia, damsel-in-distress Irina Dianova; Demetrius, a Wally Cox-like, bespeckled Joey Alvarado; Lysander, intrepid Federico Edwards; Helena, hilarious Brittany A. Kamerschen); the Rude Mechanicals, blue collar would-be thespians (Sheila Cress as Snug the Joiner; Pam Mangan as Francis Flute; Myles Wynn as Quince the actor-manager; Samantha Rasler as the bombastic Bottom the Weaver; Tracy Baxter as Snout the Tinker; Amanda Lee as Robin Starveling)--and the otherworldly fairies in the wood (Arcady Darter as Oberon; Tavi Carpenter as Titania, PoLina Litvak as the ibiquitous, grinning Puck, Lindsey Mitchell as Moth--and others in the cast doubling as the excellent fairy chorus).

So many interpretations of Shakespeare these days are just that--interpretations, usually taking the most abstruse anachronism and running with it. This production has its conceits, the term for concepts in Shakespeare's time--a midsummer's play for the winter holidays, the Mechanicals cross-cast as women led by a man--and most original, the lovers not younger, but mature, pushing middle age ...

All three premises are intriguing, adding perspective, even spin!, to the evening--but each gives an angle of view to the whole endeavor, not just a "twist," some distortion.

I've never seen the Ninjaz do Shakespearean comedy before, but rather those two archetypal tragedies, 'Hamlet' and 'Lear,' both excellently. I was concerned that 'Midsummer ... ' couldn't measure up, wouldn't be able to manage the comic lightness of touch. My concerns turned out to be empty. It's a wonderful evening of fantastic Shakespearean comedy. And as Carolino pointed out to me, "there are parts that are hardly comic!"--The Bard's other great secret weapon: a sometimes wild mingling of styles ...

What started out some years ago with Carolino directing Tennessee Williams plays and starting to pay close attention to language, then following a friend's suggestion to look into staging Shakespeare, has paid off--royally. The Ninjaz are a modest company, announcing in the program that they're nonprofessional. But their achievement isn't so modest. They're a true community theater, not the kind of hobbyist group that's often called that--modern Rude Mechanicals!-- But members of the community at large, moved to band together and explore theater, the work of our greatest playwright and poet--and who bring an admirable sincerity and determination to what they do. Whatever recognition they gather, in any case--it pays off.

Playing Fridays, Saturdays at 8 through December 30 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (off Union Square between Geary and Post), 6th floor. $20-$25. ninjazofdrama.com