Review: Austin Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Less-than-magical production salvaged by a night of unexpected spontaneity

Henry DelBello as Puck in Austin Shakespeare's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo by Gary R. Hook)

Shakespeare wrote many of his greatest and most tragic plays in quarantine in late 16th- and early 17th-century London, as the city was struck by recurring outbreaks of the bubonic plague. True story. Although no one dies of the disease in any of his plays, it's not hard to pick up on the impact of prolonged confinement and discomfort, forced separation from loved ones, and the discombobulation of a world turned upside down in dark works like King Lear, Macbeth, and Timon of Athens.

And then there's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Bard's most fanciful and popular comedy, written during a pause in the pandemic. That certainly explains the abundance of fantasy, the joyous reverie reflected in gorgeous prose and lyrical poetry, and the full-body celebration of life and love in its pages. The play is a dreamy charade that allows for mortals to mingle with pixies and for all sorts of absurdities to seem commonplace. Among its assorted subplots, this delightful diversion revolves around Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius, who are in love with the wrong partners, venture into the woods, and fall prey to mischievous fairies and their manipulations of the human heart. As Puck, the most impish of fairies, observes early in the play: "What fools these mortals be."

We sure as hell are. And some of us have opted to enjoy the lull in our own pandemic the way Shakespeare did his: under the stars, in the company of others, and wanting to get lost in the aforementioned reverie served up in this play. Unfortunately, Austin Shakespeare's free, outdoor production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in collaboration with the city of Austin's Parks and Recreation Department, is not up to the task.

The foreboding and cavernous Sheffield Zilker amphitheatre seems to overpower and suck much of the pleasure and playfulness out of Ann Ciccolella's stage direction and Patrick W. Anthony's scenic and lighting design. And rather than creatively extend the world of the play into the audience, both the director and designer seem resigned to allow the physical and psychological distance created by two tiers of concrete walkway that separate the stage from the hillside where patrons perch.

Also sucking on the night of my attendance was sound designer Lowell Bartholomee's ability to keep the actors' head microphones from popping in and out of functionality. Shakespeare-speak is hard enough to follow under the best of conditions, but when every few words are inaudible, watching the show becomes an exercise in futility.

In addition to the limitations of the performance space and technology, or perhaps because of them, the performers seemed hamstrung and delivered this play at the audience rather than sharing it with us. Words were properly memorized but not adequately mined for meaning, and there was little pleasure in their presentation. Except for the wonderful Kate Glasheen as Titania, Queen of the Fairies, the other fairies (Gabriel Diehl, Amani Alexander, Emily Green, and Danielle Kaigler) never managed to find much grace in their depictions or ride the phonetic rhythms in their dialogue. The mischievous Puck, played by Henry DelBello, came across as maniacal as a result.

None of the "rude mechanicals" – the inept laborers from Athens who want to put on a play for the city's royalty – approached the brilliant wordplay they'd been handed with any sense of humanity or playfulness. Actors Gwendolyn Kelso, Bennie Braswell, Coltrane Conklin, Trace Turner, River Ramos, and Meg Hobgood frantically reached for the punchlines rather than embracing all the clever comedy along the way.

Unburdened by memorization and too focused on her script to be overwhelmed by a cavernous stage or popping mics was Lilly Percifield. She is listed in the playbill as Backdrop Charge Artist but stepped in at the last minute to play Hermia, one of the four lovers, when actor Eliza Renner got ill. For Percifield, the evening was one of WTF and spontaneous discovery, and so her performance was refreshing and energized. In fact, the performances of Dane Parker as Lysander, Helyn Rain Messenger as Helena, and Max Green as Demetrius seemed freer and more engaging in her presence, perhaps because they had no idea just where she would be or which of her words would get spoken.

Spontaneity. Discovery. Engagement. Such is the stuff of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Zilker Hillside Theatre, 2206 William Barton,
Through May 29
Running time: 2 hrs.

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