I've long known that if Lisa Gaye Dixon is involved in a Shakespeare play at the Krannert Center — no matter the play, it will be worth seeing. Whether or not she's acting or directing, the play will be great, in large part, because of her influence upon it. The woman loves Shakespeare; the woman gets Shakespeare. And, if she's directing, she'll coax the best performances out of her actors possible. Dixon is a treasure in the performing arts culture in our city.
This past Saturday, I attended A Midsummer Night's Dream — It's a Bacchanal! at the Colwell Playhouse. It was simply dazzling. And funny. And sexy. And bursting with talent. It was everything I've come to expect from a Shakespeare play at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
I'm quite certain that everyone reading this is already familiar with A Midsummer Night's Dream, so I won't condescend to recap the story here. What I'd like to do instead is focus on the Bacchanal elements in Dixon's vision for this play. In her director's notes, she writes that part of her calling is to create art that "touches, titillates, and transforms the audience." Her calling was very evident in this production.
As I entered the theatre and took my seat, I was treated with the delightful antics of the fairies gathering and playing around a pool. Their costumes (created by Amy Bartelt) were colorful, sexy, and each one somehow fit the personality of its wearer. Every one of the fairies were beautiful, and for — I think — the first time ever in my long history of attending the theatre, I had no interest in reading my program before the show began. I just stared at the fairies until I started to feel a bit pervy. And ... lights!
Due to the fact that the role of Helena is extremely complex with difficult dialogue, the character has often been a sore spot with me. Not a lot of actresses possess the ability to depict a lovesick woman, literally begging a man to love her, without coming off as pathetic doormats. Far too often, by the time the tables are turned, and both men "love" Helena, my cynicism is such that I can't completely enjoy her predicament.
Not this time. Through Dixon's intelligent and playful directing, and Neala Barron's maturity, talent, and willingness to be overtly alluring and sexual onstage, Helena not only lays emotionally naked before Demetrius, but at one point, physically so — challenging him to love her, instead of begging him to. This is perhaps the strongest and most self-assured I've ever seen Helena portrayed.
Dixon's Midsummer is replete with this thrilling energy of sexual potency and power. The four protagonists are not simply in love with each other, but strongly physically attracted to each other, as well. When Demetrius rhapsodizes, "O, how ripe in show/ Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow," he's not talking about Helena's mouth. Sexuality of all kinds, body shapes of all kinds, ethnicities of all kinds are celebrated and welcomed and relished in this magical, sensual, pagan world. Oberon and Titania keep the fairies in a constant state of lust, and this influences everyone else who enters their forest.
The Fairy Dance deserves special mention. Titania's triumphant entry, the music, the choreography, the eroticism — it is nothing short of magnificent. Set Designer Lea Umberger has created an Athenian woods as lush, luxuriant, and provocative as its inhabitants. Choreographer Janelle James, and the incredibly talented actors, are exceptional here, and this captivating scene is alone worth the price of admission.
Which brings me to the actors themselves. Two crucial characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream are Puck and Bottom. I'd venture to say that if these two roles are not performed well, the play cannot be a success. They are — each in his own way — that central to the plot. Robert Montgomery as Bottom and Luke Grimes as Puck are simply brilliant in this production. They clearly understand what these challenging roles demand of them. Both characters must be funny and entertaining without resorting to slapstick. Puck must be a trickster without being cruel. Bottom must be proud without being arrogant, and humbled without becoming ridiculous. When actors play these roles well, it's a wonderful sight to behold, and we're treated to this with Montgomery and Grimes.
I've already discussed Barron's fantastic performance, and she's accompanied by equally talented actors. I've now seen Christopher Sheard in enough plays to know that he could make his living on the stage if that's what he wants. His Demetrius is blunt and stern with Helena without coming off as abusive (a tricky feat to accomplish). For his Lysander, Tyrone Phillips expunges much of the stuffiness with which this role is commonly portrayed. Lysander is a confident, relaxed, even humorous personality. And Sara Heller's Hermia is simply a delight. Hermia is a character that, in the hands of a less skillful actress, can seem simpering and far too pious. We get none of that from Heller's performance.
Robert Montgomery is also fortunately surrounded with an excellent team of co-actors. All are funny and warm, and provide the comic relief that's necessary to counter the often painfully harsh scenes between Demetrius and Helena. Carley Cornelius' Quince practically steals every scene she's in, and her comic timing with her fellow actors is admirable.
Jess Prichard and Jessica Dean Turner play the King and Queen of both Athens and Fairyland (Theseus/Oberon; Hippolyta/Titania). It was enjoyable to see them in these double roles, stretching their range, as imperious human royals and hot-blooded fairy royals. This is especially so for Turner, whom — if I'd not already known from the program — I wouldn't have immediately recognized as being the same actress.
I cannot recommend A Midsummer Night's Dream — It's a Bacchanal! highly enough. Do not miss this play if you can help it.
Thursday, Mar. 10, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Mar. 11, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Mar.12, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Mar. 13, 3:00 p.m.
Strong adult content, including full nudity — for mature audiences only.
Photo used by permission.