By Kathleen Kirby
Certainly one defining feature of William Shakespeare’s work is its versatility. Setting and genre are often manipulated to reflect a time and space other than the Elizabethan England of the playwright’s time. Still, the University of Michigan-Flint Department of Theatre and Dance has taken a startling leap with the current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Director Janet Haley chose to set this usually verdant tale in a crumbling industrial area clearly fashioned after recent images of Detroit and Flint. Using real places, the Duke’s palace is here modeled after the great hall of Detroit’s Fisher Building, and the working class Mechanicals hang out at a gritty 24-hour coffee shop. Using the grand Detroit Institute of Arts mural by Diego Rivera as inspiration, a 1930s theme is reflected in costumes and sound.
Still, this is an enchanting tale that can happen anywhere. Although this forest is a fire-blackened woods within an abandoned playground/clearing, the faerie spirit called Puck explodes magically from the remains of a metal jungle gym. Caleb Clark is perfect in this role of mischief maker and comedian as he frolics about in the collected flotsam and bits of discarded refuse. His favorite place of concealment in a garbage can provided a hilarious moment Friday night.
Like so many of the Bard’s comedies, this one involves mistakes and accidents that confound both mortals and faeries alike. Central is the pending marriage of the Duke (Nick Hale) to Hippolyta (Jessica Wilkowski). This event sparks the star-struck Nick Bottom (Jordan Climie) and his cronies to prepare a play in honor of the Duke’s big day.
Meanwhile the Duke is approached by Egeus (Jodie Maier) with demands that he support the marriage of her daughter Hermia (Courtney Hatcher) to her suitor Demetrius (Devin McLean) even though Hermia is in love with Lysander (Vaughn Kelsey Davis). When the Duke rules that she will face death if she disobeys her mother, Hermia and Lysander decide to escape to another town to wed. Their way lies through the forest.
Royalty resides in the woods as well where the faerie king Oberon (Kenn Hopkins) seeks to gain custody of both the love and foundling child of the faerie queen Titania (Jessica Flemming). His plan to place a flower potion in her sleeping eyes to cause her to love the first thing she sees works well for her but not so much for the mortals.
As the fellows gather to rehearse in the woods, Peter Quince (Phillip Barnhart) directs them. Nick Bottom, who wants to play all the roles himself, is relegated to a spot away where he is playfully turned into a jackass by that trickster, Puck.
Ultimately, although Titania falls in love with the donkey, and the lovers quarrel and chase each other about, Puck is able to make it all right again. The play presented for the Duke is a hit with a terrifically comic interlude between the Wall/Tom Snout (Mark Vukelich), Pyramus/Nick Bottom and Thisbe/Francis Flute (Andy Philippi). Even with the “ferocity” of Lion/Snug (Brittany Reed), everyone lives happily ever after.
Scenes transition to the thirties musical sounds of an old table-top radio and often find the endearing elderly tailor, Robin Starveling (Matt Coggins) cautiously inching his way off the stage. In the end, magic prevails in spite of the surroundings, or perhaps because of them. The message here may be that life and love is up to us; that its passion can burst forth anywhere in a fanfare of bright lights, music and applause.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through Sunday. Run, don’t walk – you don’t want to miss this one. For more information call 810-237-6520 or go to www.umflint.edu/theatredance .