The African-American Shakespeare Company’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, by William Shakespeare, directed by Sherri Young was not only the best I’ve seen, but also the most unique. As Ms Young states in her program notes, she wanted to create a culturally vibrant production that soars with the richness of [the Bard’s] language “while entwining the cultural rhythms of the West Indies”.
She and her production team succeeded on all levels, heightening the magic, mystery, fantasy, and intrigue inherent in the play.
Spurned, star-crossed lovers are Hermia (dynamic Antonette Bracks), in love with Lysander (Ryan Marchand); Helena (Paige Mayes) in love with Demetrius (Jon-David Randle). Both couples are drugged, struggle with being rebuffed, scorned, then after a magic spell, awaken to their true loves.
In keeping the set to a minimum- a fallen tree trunk, a stump; filmy, translucent panels that floated down from the flies, enhanced by lighting, denoting a forest glade- we were able to concentrate on the Trinidadian accented dialogue, which required a bit of ear-tuning on our part. Tiny fairies with gossamer wings manipulated by actors Bunraku style, created by Scott Ludwig, flitted among the characters, acting as voices within. Costumes by Rachel Heiman display the vibrant colors and styles of the West Indies. The actors danced, skipped, and ran about about the expansive stage, running towards or away from their loves and/or disdained suitors or aggressive women- or imagined wildlife in the woods. Paige Mayes is especially outstanding as Helena, rebuffed by love interest, Demetrius (Jon-David Randle). Jourdán Olivier-Verdé is majestically powerful in the rôle of Theseus, the Duke. Emily T. Philips is regal and imposing as Queen Hippolyta, Theseus’ betrothed. Olivier-Verdé is equally commanding as Oberon, King of the Fairies, sporting a set of ominous black wings and feathered headdress (Costumes designed by Rachael Heiman). Also Phillips again, as Titania, clothed in shimmering white, the Queen of the fairies.
Adding to the fun is ShawnJ West as Bottom. His physicality and comic timing are spot on. Overseeing all is the manipulative Robin Goodfellow or Puck, who also narrates the ongoing events and serves as Oberon’s jester and lieutenant, played by an excellent Charles Lewis III.
Not only is the production engaging physically, verbally, and visually, characters also break the “fourth wall” to interact with the audience. At the performance I attended, two actors invited a young child to play the part of Wall. In costume, stretching out her arms, the child gamely reads the script from prompt boards held by the actors, so softly it was difficult to hear. (Right: Paige Mayes and Jon-David Randle; below Antonette Bracks and Ryan Marchand. Photos by Jay Yamada))
An over-the-top, melodramatic interlude occurs at the end of the play involving Wall, Thisby- a terrific Gabriel A. Ross and crowd-pleaser ShawnJ. West as Pyramus, shown below, brought howls of laughter from the audience.
The play is rounded out by a wonderful, talented supporting cast including Jarrett Holley, double cast as Egeus, Hermia’s father; Peter Quince, a carpenter. He also speaks the Prologue in the Interlude; Charlotte Christien as Snug, a joiner and as Lion in the Interlude. At the curtain call lively West Indian music played as the cast danced downstage as though at Mardi Gras: feathers, beads, bikini-styled costumes with sequins, approached audience members inviting us to join the dance, some did, including yours truly. Beckoned by Helena(Paige Mayes), I couldn’t resist.
“Are you sure that we are awake? It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream . . .”
Only two more performances: Saturday, Sept 30, 8PM; Sunday, October 1, 3PM at Taube Atrium Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave. 4th Floor. Don’t miss it!