The most fun part of watching new versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream is seeing how an actor portrays Puck. In 2010, the Montana Actors' Theatre put on an incredible production of the Shakespearian comedy, starring Sarina Hart as a devilish Puck decked in black and adorned with goat horns. She gave the mischievous creature some distinct mannerisms, including a creep-tastic insect-like clicking noise she made with her mouth, and she took on a slightly dangerous air.
In the new production from the University of Montana's School of Theatre and Dance, Kelly Bouma turns Puck into a classic imp with her own fantastic spin. Whereas Hart's Puck felt like something out of Ridley Scott's dark fantasy Legend, Bouma's is more in the vein of a gremlin, though less mean or destructive. If you recall that scene in Gremlins (I know, it's from the long ago 1980s) where the critters take over a pub, messily swigging beers and swinging carelessly from chandeliers, you get a sense of Bouma's style. There's also something sweet about the way she picks up a trumpet and puts the wrong end to her face; it gives her the feel of one who's curious and impulsive but, unlike gremlins, mostly well-meaning.
A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place the eve of the wedding between Theseus of Athens and the queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. Intersecting story lines involve four star-crossed lovers, the king and queen of the fairies and a troupe of actors. Every dramatic turn is influenced by magic and dreaming, which makes the tale an interesting—though not too deeply examined—look at fate versus free will. Mostly it's a silly story that allows for playful re-imaginings, and for UM's production, director Jillian Campana takes the opportunity to experiment.
The most obvious change is that Campana has taken one of the young lovers, Lysander, and changed him to Lysandra. UM theater professor John Kenneth DeBoer adapted the script to make the gender swap work, and it does, without much ado. This is the perfect play with which to treat a gay relationship as if there were not taboo, not even in mid-1600s England, since anything is possible in the dreamscape of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's a refreshing way to make a statement by not making a statement.
Campana also chose to experiment with time. The story takes place in one night but also spans "somewhere between 1660 and tomorrow." In theory, it's an intriguing idea, but in reality it doesn't do much for the production. We see the characters' costumes change from mid-17th century to subdued tie-dye. It would be awkward if it wasn't so subtle. (Thank god Campana didn't turn it into a history of fashion throughout the ages.) But the subtleness also creates problems because it's never clear what the point of the time warp is—and that in itself is distracting.
Fortunately, other aspects keep the play grounded. Set designer Jadyn Velazquez and lighting designer Dan Norton created a fairy forest with large-scale flowers and a sky that changes colors. It's crisp, simple eye candy. Acting-wise, Midsummer offers some misses and mostly hits. For all the work that went into changing Lysander to Lysandra, I wish actor Elizabeth Bennett would break out of her powerful "Shakespearian" voice to show some emotion toward her lover, Christina Scruggs' Hermia. There's little chemistry between them; they might as well be sisters. Otherwise, the four lovers are generally fun to watch, especially Adryan Miller-Gorder, who plays Helena with hilarious desperation and great comedic timing.
The night I watched Midsummer I sadly missed the Roxy's screening of the cult film Labyrinth. Fortunately, for me, Colton Swibold plays Oberon with the confident swagger of David Bowie's Goblin King. That's a pretty classic way to go with Oberon, for good reason. And Swibold and Bouma have great chemistry together as a master and servant who are quite comfortable in each other's personal spaces.
Besides Puck, you should see this show for Sam Williamson's Bottom. As the character who ends up with a donkey's head he gets easy laughs, but Williamson doesn't squander any opportunities. He commands the stage, whether he's hee-hawing or self-aggrandizing. He's born to play the role of the ass, and this is one of the few times in life that saying that is not an insult.
A Midsummer Night's Dream continues at the Montana Theatre at UM's PARTV Center Thu., May 8, through Sat., May 10, at 7:30 PM nightly. $20/$16 seniors and students/$10 kids 12 and under. Visit umtheatredance.org.