What would Shakespeare say?

Zoot presents ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Dayton Art Institute

By Jacqui Theobald
Photo:  Zoot Theatre Company presents “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Dayton Art Institute: [ l to r] Anita Hill, Andrew Quiett and Cameron Blankenship (foreground), Kelsey Andrea (background); photo credits: Zoot Theatre Company

“Indeed, what fun!” Ol’ Will might say if he were to see his mid-sixteenth century comedy given a new interpretation by the Zoot Theatre Company outdoors, with puppets. That this production is performed without lights or microphones, however, would seem quite proper to anyone of the Shakespearean era. Methinks he’d be as delighted as the attentive audience, some also enjoying a light Leo Bistro repast and a fine bottle.

The museum setting is a blue-sky midsummer picture, dry so far, and the presentation is partly classic and partly delightful innovation. Director Brian McKnight shortened five acts of the Bard into an hour and fifteen minutes without losing the somewhat complicated – but light-hearted – romp.

Zoot has created yet another format – this time rod puppets that are really on rods or poles, firmly upright and almost as tall as their actor/manipulators. The action moves briskly in the green space around the (silent) fountain and the actors dodge beneath medium-size trees at the cloister walls. More reality; the setting is a “wood near Athens.”

Knight has been able to take eight actors, and with many more puppets and masks, recreate the full story: the duke of Athens, young lovers, the king and queen of the fairies and the bumbling prosaic workmen, originally more than 21 characters.

Most of the ensemble, all supple and energetic, have polished their talents in the Wright State University Theatre Department and they work together seamlessly. Matthew L. Harding – featured as Bottom – lends a bit of gravitas to the group, and is one of the few who remains puppet free.

Puppet Designer D. Tristan Cupp said, “In this production, Zoot chose to reverse the usual thinking; characters that might be expected as puppets aren’t.” But Oberon, king of the fairies, usually an imposing man, becomes an elegant, though dour-faced creation of twigs and scowls, manipulated by Andrew Quiett, who also manages Theseus, duke of Athens.Helena, one of the young lovers, is a puppet voiced by Kelsey Andrae. Hermia, the other young lover-puppet is performed by Anita Hill who also brings grace to the flowing net-constructed Titania, queen of the fairies.

In the original Elizabethan theatre, no women were on stage, but the 21st century provides equal opportunity. Juliet Howard-Welch plays Snug, the joiner and also Cobweb. The first is a craftsman, the second a puppet fairy, blue with small movable wings. Cameron Blankenship is a human Robin Goodfellow (Puck) and he also plays Hippolyta, puppet queen of the Amazons and engaged to Theseus.

In a triple-duty assignment, Darren Brown is Peter Quince, a carpenter and the gold ornamented Mustardseed fairy and Demetrius, a young puppet-lover. The other multi-task casting is Mathys Herbert enlivening Francis Flute, a bellows mender, the puppet fairy Peaseblossom and the fourth puppet lover, Lysander.

Admirably, the shortened script doesn’t omit essentials, but any Shakespeare presentation benefits from a brief program synopsis, as for many the convoluted plots are challenging to follow. Not to oversimplify, “Dream” is the story of the pre-nup celebration of Theseus and Hippolyta, the royals. The sub-plot involves a father trying to prevent his daughter Hermia’s liaison with Lysander. Demetrius wants Hermia; Helena wants Demetrius so she tries to interfere. A kingdom of fairies has come to the festivities in the woods. Oberon sends Puck to find the magic purple flower to put one over on Tatania and she falls in love with Bottom, an ass. Mistaken identities and magic dreams mess with everybody. “The course of true love never did run smooth.” A sub-sub plot is the craftsmen’s rehearsal and play within the play, Pyramus and Thisbe, and the wall are all masked humans. It’s one of the funniest pieces of slapstick comedy ever written.

Director/adapter Knight is passionate about honoring the intent of the First Folio, the original written record (1623) of the plays, while, he said, “keeping the truth between the people and the puppets.” His actors move their puppets and themselves as one. Little touches such as the rhythmic breathing of prone characters both sleeping speak to that humanity.

That the audience is seated around the cloister’s low wall perimeter and the action moves around the interior does cause a few problems of sound clarity, but the rhythm of the poetry and the beauty of the choreographic movement maintain the flow. With that devotion to the original era, the more modern music choices, though minimal, are puzzling. Natural birdsongs are delightful.

Dayton is in the vanguard of 2013 theatre, not surprisingly. A recent New York Times article featured seven high profile companies performing new interpretations of “Dream” from New Haven to Nashville to San Diego, including an online interactive Google version. All promise to hold dear the original.

This is a fine show to introduce your upper elementary kids and older to Shakespeare. As Tristan Cupp – whose fertile creative brain is always in gear – said as he and his artists put finishing touches on their puppets, “We’re just having fun.” You will, too.

The Zoot Theatre Company presents “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs through Sunday, June 30, At the Dayton Art Insitute, 456 Belmonte Park North. Shows on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m. Call 937.223.4ART for reservations for food, drink and tickets. For more information, visit zoottheatrecompany.org.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com

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Jacqui Theobald
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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