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Ashland's finest of the current Shakespeare fest

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'A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM' (Elizabethan Stage) ★★½

The big disappointment of the season is A Midsummer Night's Dream, Christopher Liam Moore's poorly thought-out staging of one of Shakespeare's best known and most loved comedies. Though the visual look of the show is stunning, with leafy green projections employed to make the ramps and swirls of the wooden stage look like a vibrant forest, the whole enterprise feels forced and clunky, careening between scenes that are dull and lifeless, and others so badly constructed they look like something improvised in a high school drama class.

On top of that, Moore jettisons Shakespeare's text frequently, replacing names, titles and exposition with his own material, all to accommodate his resetting the play to 1964, on and around a Catholic college. I have no problem with shifting the setting of Shakespeare's plays. To my mind, you can set them in the past, present or future, plop the characters down in the Depression, the Apocalypse or on the planet Krypton. But if you have to change the text to fit the vision, you need a different vision.

By comparison, My Fair Lady managed a triumphant reimagining without altering any of the words at all. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, it happens often, and usually to the detriment of the story. The bad ideas begin with Moore's decision to transform the soon-to-be-married warrior Theseus and his Amazon queen conquest Hippolyta into priest and nun—Father Theseus and Sister Hippolyta—who shock everyone, but not enough (given that it's 1964), with their decision to marry.

The primary story deals with the merged antics of four young lovers, escaped to the forest, the warring magic of two bands of fairies and a troupe of actors using the woods to rehearse a play. In this version, the actors are staff from the school, requiring the original's Snug the Joiner to become Snug the Janitor. The foolish Bottom, the one who famously ends up transformed into a half-donkey, is the school's PE teacher.

One gets the idea that it almost might have worked. But it doesn't, and the actors appear to know this. With only a few exceptions, the performances are tentative, wooden and flat, the performers sounding as if they are reciting text rather than uttering words coming from their souls and minds, an additional insult given the lighthearted lusciousness of the text.

'CYMBELINE' (Elizabethan Stage) ★★★½

When Shakespeare first wrote it, Cymbeline (running through Oct. 13) was a blockbuster. But today, it has become trendy to disregard Cymbeline as an unsatisfying and seriously messed-up play. It is certainly a bit of a mash-up, as if Shakespeare had collected piles of random ideas and then, toward the end of his career, tried to cram them all into one play, whether they fit together or not. That would explain the wildly careening shifts in tone—from comedy to tragedy to satire—and such odd elements as princes disguised as acrobatic mountain men and a headless body mistaken for someone else.

Still, I've always loved Cymbeline, with its pre–Brothers Grimm tropes of an evil stepmother, a pure-hearted princess who's escaped to the woods, benevolent spirits and other supernatural forces arriving in time to make everything right. In this visually stunning production by Bill Rauch (who also directed King Lear), those occasional fairy-tale elements inspire a production packed with elves, orcs and guys with horns, casually interacting with each other as if they were a band of characters in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Walt Disney movies are an obvious influence as well, the evil stepmother dressed to resemble Snow White's sorceress queen, complete with a steaming cauldron and poisoned apple.

Those elements, unfortunately, prove more distracting than illuminating, and as much as I love elves, orcs and guys in horns, they feel forced, superimposed onto the story rather than integrated into it. Which is a shame, because everything else works. Cymbeline, a pagan king who's fallen under the spell of his heartless but beautiful second-wife, is played with fragile power by the great American actor Howie Seago (look him up on Wikipedia), who just happens to be deaf.

In casting a deaf actor, who speaks here in sign language and the occasional impassioned wordless cry, Rauch uncovers a number of rich dramatic textures. Watching the other characters approach to signing, for one thing, reveals more about their characters, and their feelings for the king, than they make clear in their words.

The primary story, a tangent-filled epic of lost loves, lost children, lost sanity and lost plot threads, is entertainingly and clearly told, with plenty of gorgeous stage magic to keep the eyes dazzled, even when the brain gets a little overworked. Rauch keeps the tone light, even during the heavy parts—and especially during the headless parts—and allows the actors to poke fun at the story they're engaged in, essentially winking at the audience, agreeing that it's all a bit much.

While I definitely do recommend Cymbeline, I personally would have preferred less of that knowing jokiness. We don't need to be reminded that it's a bit silly. The guy with the horns made that clear from the beginning.

'THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD' (Elizabethan Stage) ★★★★

While much of Shakespeare's appeal is his incomparable use of language, it is writer David Farr's understanding of action and twisty-turny plotting that drives The Heart of Robin Hood, an entertaining origin story unfolding on the Elizabethan stage. Easily the best show of the new outdoor openings, this Robin Hood reframes the myth from the point of view of Maid Marian (an eclectic and delightful Kate Hurster), who encounters the famous thief (played with goofball relish by John Tufts) when she escapes to the woods to avoid marrying the evil Prince John (an amazing Michael Elich).

The idea here is that, before Marian, Robin Hood was just a dim-witted thug, stealing from the rich—and keeping the loot. It is only when he begins to take responsibility for the lives of a group of orphaned children that Robin begins to feel a sense of obligation for the fate of others. As he gradually warms to the idea, his fellow thieves come on board as well, embracing the shocking notion of actually doing good for others.

The language is rich and funny, but the strongest Bard-light comparisons are in the Elizabethan-style plot, complete with Marian donning a boy's costume to join the Merry Men (a device also seen in Cymbeline, and many other Shakespeare plays).

Seago appears here again, this time as Little John, and his giddy, full-hearted performance matches those of the rest of the cast. The story is fast-paced, crammed with visual spectacle (and some awesome stage fighting), and even genuinely moving, as Marian discovers her own true vocation while, almost by accident, teaching Robin Hood where his own heart lies.

  • Ashland's finest of the current Shakespeare fest

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