I have to admit that I drag my feet a bit when it comes to Shakespeare. Not when it comes to reading the plays—I could spend weeks upon weeks absorbing the wordplay and tragedy and cheeky shenanigans on the page. I'm a nerd like that. But when it comes to viewing a theater group's rendition of Shakespeare, it's hit or miss. And often miss, with painful results.
The Montana Actors' Theatre version of A Midsummer Night's Dream was not a miss. I won't go so far as to say it was perfect, but it had stunning charm and strong momentum, and the acting was as professional as I've ever seen in Missoula. It was more fun than I've had at a Shakespeare play in a long time.
Only a few times a year Missoula audiences are treated to a local play that really hits its mark so dead-on that it deserves some extra kudos, and MAT's Midsummer is one of those plays. While its run ended last week, and we usually don't run reviews of plays after they've closed, this production deserves to be an exception.
MAT's artistic director, Grant Olson, directed the comedy, and he made it a highly physical, acrobatic play. When characters fought, they fought hard—wrestling each other to the ground and turning red with fury. When the characters were in love, they were playful, giddy and starry-eyed with each other. And most of the interactions were graceful at the same time that they seemed impromptu and honest.
It's a good Shakespeare production when, as an audience member, you're not trying to decipher the dialog. The play's poetically penned lines like, "But earthlier happy is the rose distilled, than that which withering on the virgin thorn grows, lives and dies in single blessedness," can sound like a foreign language if not given the kind of delivery that suggests natural speech. And in MAT's production, the delivery was done well enough that even if you missed the meaning of a few lines, you still got it. Every gesture and change of tone told the story just as well as the words themselves.
In fact, all the actors rose to the occasion in one way or another, even those with limited stage time or underdeveloped backgrounds. Michelle Edwards as Titiana, Queen of the Fairies, and her fairy brood (played by six actresses in platinum blonde wigs) added a feisty and sometimes sinister air to roles that could more often than not, in other renditions, be played with bland etherealness.
But there were a few performances that really stood out above the rest: Rebecca Sporman played the rebellious Hermia with a keen ability to go from an optimistic woman in love to enraged animal. Arcadea Jenkins nailed Helena as an equal mix between cringe-worthy fool and bewildered pawn. Both are good enough actresses to make you feel like they were encountering each incident in the play for the first time. Nothing about their reactions to events seemed canned or repeated or on auto-pilot—not always an easy thing to do when you perform the same play night after night. And both showed a sharp talent for comedic timing.
British actor Jim Badcock (a UM exchange student) was hilarious as Bottom. Laugh-out-loud hilarious. He played the absurd, asinine character (who literally becomes an ass) with just the right amount of ego plus insecurity to make him endearing. At the same time that Badcock kept you immersed in the story (you can't imagine him as any other character except Bottom), it was hard not to admire his particular personal touches: the way he comfortably paused before delivering a line just right or his spastic gestures that must have left him sweating by the end of every scene.
Sarina Hart was the mischievous Puck, but with her own odd mannerisms (she made the strangest clicking noises with her mouth) and goblin-ish air. She and the very tall and magnetic Reid Reimers as her master, Oberon, made for a riveting pair. They gleefully plotted tricks together—though Reimers did it with the demeanor of a righteous god and Hart with the carelessness of a devilish imp.
The Greek-styled costumes by Kitty Deyo and Reimers went well beyond toga-styled sheets: The forest characters were bedazzled with fern-covered clothing and blinking lights. The set by Karl Mitchell was equally intriguing: Giant-sized mushrooms lurked in the corners. Tiny caves allowed characters—especially the forest dwellers—to come and go like magic. Best of all, the audience had an interesting view: The seats were elevated on risers above the action of the play, which all took place in the center of the room in a gauntlet-like space.
On the Sunday afternoon I saw the play there were a little over 20 people there—a small audience, for sure, but an amused and delighted one. They saw one of the best shows of the year, and the kind of production that turns the uninitiated into a Shakespeare lover.