A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, at Arabian Shakespeare Festival of San Francisco

Shakespeare’s  Love-Upside-Down Comedy through an Arabian Lens

By Susan Dunn

Annamarie MacLeod as Bottom, photograph by Gregg Le Blanc, Cumulous Light Photography

How can Shakespeare’s funniest comedy not be funny?  How can the love madness and mixed up lovers dis-entangling their partners and sleeping off magic potions not charm?  In fact — for our western world sensibilities — the A Midsummer Night’s Dream served up by The Arabian Shakespeare Festival (ASF) is indeed funny and charming. But its much more than that!

ASF asks us to look at this play through the eyes of a very different paternalistic culture in which marriages are arranged, women are restricted socially, religiously and culturally. And freedoms we take for granted are scarce to be found. When ASF produced this play ten years ago with an all-female class at the University of Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the female actors’ Arabian perspectives were so strikingly different than our own that they opened up this other world we don’t readily see in the Western Theater. As Director William J. Brown, III tells us in his helpful program notes, that other culture, shared by so much of our larger world, needs to be shared. For these female actresses, women who lacked freedom in love in their own lives, it was tremendously exciting for them to portray women of power, of daring, of paternal defiance and of emotional success. ASF must close an era of their unique productions at the intimate Royce Gallery this fall, and Brown chose this final production in a beloved venue to commemorate that UAE experience.

What, we may ask, is the value of casting against traditional gender, and actors constantly changing their roles in front of us as a device?  According to the Director notes, “It brings a unique dynamic to the story when the same actor plays multiple characters of various genders. It allows for the audience to see a familiar story with possibly a new perspective and understanding.”

Maeron Yeshiwas as Hermia and Norman Gee as Egeus, photograph by Gregg Le Blanc, Cumulous Light Photography

Six actors (and one dog!) assume all roles, with genders reversed and assignments multiplied. The set is stripped to the barest of blocks and props, with actors donning caps, vests, cod pieces and cross-dressed costumes to do onstage character swaps.

A particularly interesting casting gives Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer both Lysander and Demetrius, which she portrays by moving from one side to the other of Hermia, the popular female of the moment. Schmeltzer also takes the role of Flute. Norman Gee shows his range covering Titania in a dress, Egeus as the tiresome father, and finally Snout the Tinker who snorts quite continuously. Jennifer Le Blanc is outstanding in her portrayals of the commanding Oberon, the Scottish-accented Philostrate, and the German-accented Snug the Joiner.  An engaging Maeron Yeshiwas makes her ASF debut as the fair Hermia, the baffled Director, Quince, and Cobweb the fairy.

Acting honors are stolen by Annamarie MacLeod who engages us as the second-run Helena, the sophisticated cigarette-smoking Hippolyta and finally the charmingly oblivious Bottom. Her counterpart is John Lewis whose arresting portrayal as a bold and chubby Puck catches the Fairy’s spirit with his facial expressions and bravado. His other roles include a manipulative and oversexed Theseus and finally Starveling the Tailor.   A few scenes are upstaged by Beatrice, Starveling’s Dog, who knows how to play multiple roles as well, and has learned the fine art of scene stealing.

Shakespeare’s plays have found a unique venue in the intimate Royce Gallery where constrictions of space have served to foster imaginative sets and unique takes on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, “Hamlet”, “Twelfth Night” and others. ASF asks us to look with Fairies eyes into this world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and see Shakespeare’s world through those creatures magic. And isn’t our world today ripe for a topsy-turvy production, considering the antics of many of our political figures!

Cast:

  • Norman Gee as Titania / Egeus / Snout
  • Jennifer Le Blanc as Oberon / Philostrate / Snug
  • John R. Lewis as Puck / Theseus / Starveling
  • Annamarie MacLeod as Helena / Bottom / Hippolyta
  • Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer as Lysander / Demetrius / Flute
  • Maeron Yeshiwas as Hermia / Quince / Cobweb

Director: William J. Brown III.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, at the Arabian Shakespeare Festival,

https://arabianshakespearefestival.org/

Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa Street, San Francisco

Preview November 7

Performances November 8, 10, 15, 16, 12, 17, 22, 23, 24.

Weekdays and Saturdays at 8:00pmSundays at 2:00pm

Tickets available at https://arabianshakespearefestival.org  or directly from Brown Paper Tickets at https://asfmsd.bpt.me/

Price range: $15- $35; Discounts for those under 35, teacher, seniors, and military.

HOW: Online: www.ArabianShakes.org

By phone: 408-499-0017