Reviewed by Shelly L. Hoffman
Summer in these parts is usually a quiet time for theatre, but this summer we have seen an absolute boon in not only the number of shows being staged in Genesee County, but also in the quality of the productions on offer. Flint Youth Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream adds to the now burgeoning list of great theatre experiences to be had this season.
Arguably, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s most accessible and humorous play which makes it a fitting choice for a youth theatre’s foray into the canon. Director Jeremy Winchester’s staging, with its inspired adaptation, stellar performances, elaborate setting, imaginative and meticulous costumes, enchanting music, and brilliant technical aspects, amounts to one stellar production that is not to be missed.
Where to start?! We’ll take it from the top. Winchester has slightly adapted Shakespeare’s tale of a quartet of young lovers, as well as a band of rude mechanicals mounting a play for the Duke, Theseus, upon his marriage to Hippolyta, and of a fairyland ruled over by a feuding couple. Customarily, it begins with young Hermia being brought by her father to the Duke in order to force her to wed Demetrius whom she does not love. Defying her father, she pledges her love to Lysander and, as such, is sentenced to die or become a nun if she doesn’t change her mind. Hermia and Lysander flee into the forest where they are joined by Demetrius who is pursued by the spurned Helena. Meanwhile, a group of workers from the town are casting a play they hope to perform for the Duke. In Winchester’s production, he has switched the order of the presentation. Instead of beginning with the somber pleas of love and the sentencing of Hermia, we first meet the mechanicals. This is a clever change, as the audience is immediately drawn in by the comedy and it clearly pronounces “This is going to be very funny.” We like to think if Shakespeare were given a re-write for today’s audience, he, too, would choose to present it in this order. Winchester has also altered the impetus for the feud between the fairy king and queen, as well as eliminating a character or two, and cutting some lines. Most of this is for the better, but we do lament some of the missing pieces.
This show is filled with top-notch performances. And, what’s so stunning about that is the exceedingly capable work, performing Shakespeare, no less, of the student-actors. Winchester is to be commended for not only casting young people in these demanding roles but for guiding them in their command of the text. Leading this group is Layla Meillier as Hermia. She exhibits bewitching skill in the gamut of emotions she displays and so ably controls. Her fear as she faces Theseus is palpable. George Lieber (Lysander), David A. Guster (Demetrius), and Jennifer Lynn (Helena) are equally up to the task of conveying the Bard’s words in such a way that we never once doubt they understand every line they deliver.
It’s almost a given the mechanicals will be good for some side-splitting laughs and, indeed, they are. This band of tradesmen vying to present their “tragical tale”, Pyramus and Thisbe, at the Duke’s wedding, is directed by Mistress Quince (Brittany Reed). Reed is a calming presence as she deadpans her way through correcting pronunciation and keeping egos in check. Her compatriots include Robin Starveling (LaTroy Childress), Francis Flute (Matt Coggins), Nick Bottom (Mark Gmazel), Snug (Chazz Irwin), and Tom Snout (Marwan Prince). They each bring a unique charm to the stage as both their characters and their character’s characters. Coggins’ falsetto “Thisbe” is particularly hilarious and Gmazel delights as the weaver, as the ass he is turned into, and as “Pyramus.” He takes many risks in his portrayal and they pay off handsomely.
In the forest, where the fairies roam, more students are used to dance and sing their way around, with great effect, as they serve the fairy queen, Titania (Deirdre S. Baker, who is double-cast as Hippolyta). The highlight here, and perhaps of the whole play, is the camaraderie between the king, Oberon (Anthony Guest, also cast as Theseus) and his servant Puck (Dan Gerics, also cast as Hermia’s father, Egeus). They are absolutely comedic in their Dumb and Dumber interpretation. Guest is equal parts resplendent and amusing, and Gerics brings a lighthearted lovability to Puck. They play off one another fantastically.
Midsummer’s staging is a visual feast that requires two venues to pull off. That’s right, the audience moves from one space to another. A simple raised staging area in the center of one of the studios, which creates a “theatre-in-the-square”, serves the opening two scenes. Then, the audience is beckoned by Winchester to follow into the Elgood Theatre where they are greeted by Gene Oliver’s breathtaking scenic design of the fairies’ forest. Seats have been removed to create more playing area, colorful ribbons hang from above, and a downed tree trunk serves as a footbridge. Doug Mueller’s lighting adds to the beauty and enchantment.
Adam M. Dill’s costume design is luscious and, perhaps, one of the most accomplished we have ever seen. The Athenian garb is splendid and rich, the mechanicals are comically anachronistic, and the fairies are ethereal. The most magnificent costumes are those of Oberon and Puck. Oberon is a stag, with tree-branch horns and a leaf-covered cloak (that Guest uses well) and Puck is a satyr, complete with cloven hooves (and Gerics moves beautifully in this get-up).
And the music! Dan Gerics has composed and designed music for this production and it is glorious. Whether it is the fairies playing percussive instruments or simple, yet effective, recorded ambient noises to bring out the sounds of a forest, the sound always perfectly suits the action.
This is also a technical marvel. We have often heard people say that it’s a good thing when the technical aspects of a show aren’t mentioned in a review; it means they did nothing to draw negative attention! However, we appreciate the amount of work that goes into something of this magnitude and congratulate Nicole Broughton on expertly stage managing this production. It was flawless.
Midsummer almost always pleases, but Flint Youth Theatre’s tendering is a substantial piece that blends every element just wonderfully.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues at the Elgood Theatre, in rotation with The Cat in the Hat, as part of FYT’s “SummerStage” series, Saturday, August 15, Thursday, August 20, Friday, August 21, and Sunday, August 23 at 2:00 pm and on Saturday, August 22 at 7:00 pm. Tickets range in price from $12 – $16 in advance and $14 – $18 day-of-show, and can be purchased in-person or by visiting http://tickets.thewhiting.com/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=6432.