A Midsummer Night's Dream: Holy conceptual contortions, Batman!

Local Arts Reviews

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Holy conceptual contortions, Batman!

Beverly Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theatre,

through October 8

Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min

The Austin Shakespeare Festival continues its clever approach to the romantic comedies (remember last summer's go-go cage, hippie-era As You Like It?) updating and transporting this season's A Midsummer Night's Dream into a fantasy world of superheroes with a strong hint of modern Chicago 'burb to complement Shakespeare's lyrical, magical, ancient Athenian wood. Or perhaps this production might better be called A Midsummer Night's Dream Within a Dream, as the whole superhero fantasy is dreamed up by the rudest of rude mechanicals: bully Bottom, a working-class schlub who loves his cartoons and bowling buddies.

Actually, it is director Robert Tolaro who has dreamed up this Dream with fairies as superheroes, Theseus and Hippolyta as dot-com CEOs intent on a (matrimonial) merger, and Bottom and his bowling buds as those bumbling amateur thespians, doomed to entertain with that laugh-filled tragic mini-play that provides the show's hilarious finale. It's too bad that for all its clever twists and turns, Tolaro's concept pulls up just a little short, with many chances to take the concept further left begging. Fortunately, with a cast geared to the play's comic bits, Tolaro gets consistent laughs in what is, ultimately, a fun and rambunctious evening and a great introduction to the work of the Bard and reintroduction to ASF.

At the center of concept and play is Bottom, played with kidlike enthusiasm by Clay Towery, hand on remote control, flipping stations and jamming (with his action figures) to the opening credits of Mighty Mouse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Speed Racer. Once asleep on his couch, all his pals and superheroes find their way into his dream of the Athenian wood to create romantic mayhem. Oberon, King of the Fairies, bounds in as Batman; Titania, his estranged queen, is, naturally, Catwoman. Oberon's brisk young sidekick Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow, is, duh, Robin. Holy conceptual contortions, Batman! But it works: Sam Grimes has a statuesque pose and baritone that recalls Adam West (although without West's overemphatic delivery); and Heidi Hargrove purrs as Titania, sinewy and elusive. Neither is as physically over the top, however, as the wonderful J. Damian Gillen's Puck, who races about with mischievous verve as bat-protégé Robin, taking great delight in his antics. Rounding out the superheroes is a quartet of Power Rangers who assist Titania and take charge of quick, simple scene changes. Interestingly, Kelly McDaniel's grim Egeus -- whose daughter, Hermia, plans to elope with the out-of-fatherly-favor Lysander (more on the lovers later) -- waddles about and squawks rather like that mischief-making anti-hero and evildoer the Penguin, which is great for a few giggles but doesn't really jibe with the non-fairy world of boring old Theseus' court. There they are, filthy rich Theseus and Hippolyta, amiably played by Jesse Wiles and Ryla Wolfe, but mere shades of the more exuberant Batman/Oberon and Catwoman/Titania. So why aren't they the comic book characters' alter egos? Holy missed opportunity, Batman!

Bottom's comrades miss nothing, however, when it comes to comedy. The bowling shirt-clad group, under the theatrical guidance of Michael Stuart's Italian-American Peter Quince of the thick-as-Ragu accent and the silly beret, include some of Austin's funniest actors getting a rare chance for no-holds-barred Shakespeare. Bill Durham, Shane Breaux, and James Arnold find moment after moment of merriment as they ham it up as Snout, Snug, and Starveling. But it is Lowell Bartholomee as Flute, the most imposing boob of the lot, with his ratty Bulls T-shirt and malodorous belching, who gets (mis)cast in the amateur little playlet as the love-struck damsel Thisbe to Bottom's overly loquacious Pyramus. Bartholomee, entering in a cheerleader outfit with the pair of strategically placed mini-pompons, creates an image that will live in the memory forever. The bone-crunching comic turn he and Towery have as they perform the sad little death scene brings down the house.

For the lovers, this would be a hard act to follow. But Shakespeare gives the lugs the last word, practically, once the travails of the lovers are over. Lorri Genelle Hobson and Jill K. Swanson play the girls, Hermia and Helena; Scott M. Daigle and Dan Bisbee the boys, Demetrius and Lysander -- but only Bisbee's punked-out, bleached-hair Lysander gets the particular attention of Bottom's dreamy imagination. Perhaps there is too much tradition in the staging of the various chase scenes that encompass the lovers' story to get as wild and crazy as with the fairies and rude mechanicals, but even with their comparatively staid onstage personas, this quartet gets its laughs, too, especially Bisbee.

Lighting designer Robert Whyburn provides plenty of visual magic and, even in its very short appearance, Oberon's pseudo-Batmobile is a hot-rod hoot. Even wishing that Tolaro had pushed ever so slightly harder to fully engulf the stage in his comic book concept, this Midsummer Night's Dream still contains all the laughs of your favorite hijinks, capers, and shenanigans.

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Austin Shakespeare Festival, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Robert Tolaro, Clay Towery, Sam Grimes, Adam West, Heidi Hargrove, J. Damian Gillen, Kelly McDaniel, Jesse Wiles, Ryla Wolfe, Michael Stuart, Bill Durham, Shane Breaux, James Arnold, Lowell Bartholom

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