From the moment Managing Art Director Calder Johnson took the opening night stage to introduce A Midsummer Night's Dream at North Coast Repertory Theatre, clad in an outfit out of a Hunter S. Thompson book, I knew this production was going to be different. The first fully rehearsed production in more than two and a half years is a lovely rendition of William Shakespeare's four-century-old play. Director Andrea Zvaleko and Acting Coach Director Cynthia Martells assembled an incredibly talented and diverse cast that overcame production issues and a series of unfortunate events in its neo-normal-quasi-post-pandemic theater rehearsals to celebrate one of Bill's most magical and iconic works in a truly enjoyable show.
There will be a wedding organized by Theseus and Hippolyta (Evan and Caroline Needham). Demetrius (A.J. Hempstead) is loved by Helena (Holly Robertson), though he wants to marry Hermia (Amelia Resendez), who is mutually in love with Lysander (Austin Maisler). Hermia and Lysander try to elope in the woodland realm of Faerie King Oberon (Virgo Marroquin) and Queen Titania (Isabel Semler). Helena plots to woo Demetrius by devising a plan to pursue the couple and do her own coupling with him. The quadruple become collateral damage in the middle of a fight between the fae royalty, where love potions are tossed around by Puck (Cam Barrowdale), an actor gets a donkey head transformation and mischievous faeries (Monica Blacklock, Lillian Damron, Sara Jane, Adrienne Ralsten and Neri Traugot) run amok. In addition to the nefarious frivolity, an acting troupe (Elaine Althouse, Grace Koch, Jennifer Miles, Jaye Templeton, Shawn Wagner, Elizabeth Whittmore) prepares a show for the wedding as their plotline gets absorbed into the shenanigans. Though the plot(s) seems complicated, the show's movement and the company's apt storytelling make it easier to follow.
This show is broken down into relationships amid three groups: the court, the fae and the theater troupe. As dance choreographer, Noel August does great work using stylized movement to distinguish each group. Their respective styles — stiff and minimal movement, Graham/Tharp-esque fluidity and Dell'Arte physicality — were well established and will undoubtedly be explored more deeply over the production's run. Costumers Olivia Gambino and Megan Hughes further the distinction with their modern take on Shakespeare. They employ suits and dresses reminiscent of The Importance of Being Earnest, a bohemian take on Clowns Without Borders and deconstructed elemental references. The stunning electrical flower dress befitting the queen and an incredibly accessorized androgynous red velvet corseted jumpsuit befitting a king must be experienced. When juxtaposed with Kelly Hughes' minimalist set comprised solely of draped fabrics, some elements are unfortunately lost. I appreciate the concept of representing multiple forms in simplicity, however, more attention to the types of fabric and how their colors change in the lighting would bring this better into fruition. Lighting designer Brian Butler relies on dimmer lighting and blue hues that affect not only the color of costumes, but the tint of actors' skin and makeup in sometimes ineffective ways.
Semler's Titania was mesmerizing and generous in the attention and energy she gives to her cast and audience. Hempstead deciphers every word of Shakespeare's complexity and physical subtext, taking his Demetrius to another level (though adlibs outside the given vernacular prove challenging). Both performers elevate everyone else's performances, as with a scene that weaves the sharp tongue of Maisler's Lysander, the heartbroken scorn of Resendez's Hermia, the incredulity of Robertson's Helena and the intoxicated infatuation of Hempstead's Demetrius into one of the most memorable scenes of the production as an example. Likewise, Semler has brilliant moments with an unforgettable Jaye Templeton's Bottom as the drugged queen and transformed actor engage in a hilariously physical scene of newly realized (for the queen) love.
Marroquin's Oberon is delicious in juxtaposition with a devilishly playful Puck (Cam Barrowdale), and once their relationship with Titania becomes more realized in the run, will be even more alluring. The playful relationships are captivating and the production yields the best death (Templeton), the best tickle-tickle-slap (Elizabeth Whittmore), the best screaming exit and a "wall" that steals the entire show (Grace Koch).
Minor impediments that will surely get ironed out in the run do not distract from the overall experience. While the additions of a dance break and musical number are welcome, the transitions feel labored, soothed only slightly by the live pianist (Jonathan Moreno). With these additions, the long runtime had people fidgeting and shifting in their seats in preparation for the end of Act 1 and the sustained stretches after the show finished on the night I attended. Still, the production is well worth it, having taken its time to be thorough. It is a not-to-be-missed work.
North Coast Repertory Theatre's A Midsummer Night's Dream runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Sept. 4. Call (707) 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.
Tiggerbouncer Custodio (he/she/they) is an empowered queer Indigenous Filipino artist whose works have been seen on Humboldt stages and elsewhere.