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[whitespace] 'Midsummer Night's Dream'
Photograph by R.R. Jones

Sprite Spite: The fairy rulers, Titania (Mhari Sandoval) and Oberon (Bruce Turk), patch up a lover's quarrel in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

Sweet Jests

SSC's masterful 'Midsummer Night's Dream' restores balance to the lives of fairies and mortals

By Valerie Ross

EVERY SUMMER, Shakespeare Santa Cruz reinvents itself. By the very nature of its primary theatrical space--the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen--innovation, change and creativity are the foundations of this unique theater company. Festival set designers must literally build a new stage in the Festival Glen--from scratch--every year. At the end of the season, they must tear the stage down, leaving the Glen as pristine and untouched throughout the intervening months as if there were never a stage there at all.

This simple behind-the-scenes fact guarantees that every season, audiences will find a theatrical space that is utterly new. The woodland space remains as magical and beautiful as ever, but each summer it contains a brand new stage that promises fresh visions and versions of Shakespeare's timeless plays, as only Shakespeare Santa Cruz dares to reinvent them.

Director Tim Ocel's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream blends ancient myth with modern aesthetics, and 18th- and 19th-century set elements with otherworldly costumes and distinctly 21st century sensibilities. By doing so Ocel skillfully captures the play's own blend of multiple realities and layers of mythic history. Balance is the theme behind Ocel's vision of the play, reconciling the differences and conflicts between the natural world of magic and love and the man-made world of law and war. But there is also the war between the sexes to be resolved, in the mortal as well as the fairy realm, not to mention the class wars between the aristocrats and the working classes who entertain them.

When the play begins, each of these separate yet interconnected worlds are noticeably out of balance: Theseus, Duke of Athens, has won his bride Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, in battle, and her affections toward him are understandably ambivalent. One of Theseus's subjects, an irate aristocrat named Egeus, is ready to put his daughter Hermia to death according to the letter of the law if she refuses to marry the man he has chosen for her. While humble craftsmen wrangle over roles in a play, the furious quarreling of the fairy King and Queen is literally laying the natural world to waste.

Ocel manifests this universal discord with the intermittent rumblings of an ominous storm and flashes of threatening thunder and lightning behind the set, which is--at least at first--a regal 18th-century drawing room consisting of two high gilded walls of faux malachite marble and delicate golden furniture. The room's stiff formality is emblematic of the cultural confines unbalancing the lives of the mortals who pass through its formidable ornamental walls. But when the scene shifts to the forest for the majority of the play, Ocel's imaginative manipulation of Nature's destructive and creative forces steals the show. When a believable replica of one of the Glen's towering redwoods flanking the stage falls with a crack of lightning, the walls of the set buckle and burst open and the edifice of order is irreparably transformed.

Just as Nature takes over the set, in this production the Fairies easily dominate the rest of the plot lines with the sheer force of their sex appeal, lyrical beauty and visual energy, not to mention their alternatively raucous and mesmerizing musical accompaniment created by sound designer/composer Greg Coffin. As King Oberon and Queen Titania, Bruce Turk and Mhari Sandoval are powerful, eloquent and seductively well matched amorous rivals whose elaborate dances of love and battles of words are equally graceful and dangerously exciting. They and their respective retinues are resplendent in exquisitely ragged assemblages of velvet, chiffon, leather and lace décolletage, designed by the incomparable B. Modern, whose costumes manage to show lots of enticing skin while conveying a clear sense of the wild toughness of the natural world that is the fairies' essence. As Puck, Triney Sandoval brings the perfect mix of menace, mischievous charm and abundant comic energy to his role, assisted by a fanfare of heavy metal guitar riffs at his every entrance.

As for the mortals in the play, Tommy A. Gomez's portrayal of Nick Bottom, the poignantly buffoonish weaver who longs to be a serious actor, is masterful, even when transformed with donkey's ears in hapless Titania's bower. The rest of the rustic craftsmen give admirable performances as well, particularly Sam Misner as Flute, whose initial resistance to and final embrace of the female lead in their comic version of "Pyramus and Thisbe" is admirably sincere.

The Athenian aristocrats are led by Katie MacNichol's Helena, whose unrequited romantic antics are skillfully directed--she is surely the first Helena desperate enough to return the advances of her beloved's rival, taking affection wherever she can get it. As Hermia, Maria Dizzia is feisty and sympathetic, while Mike Ryan's Demetrius and Daniel Passer's Lysander are surprisingly violent yet laughably self-important. Remi Sandri's Theseus is suitably regal and self-interested, just as Amanda Rafuse's ambivalent Hippolyta shows a perfect balance of disdain and compassion.

Lighting designer Russell Champa's moonlight effects are central to the show's themes of natural change and magical transformation, and scenic designer Dipu Gupta's decision to leave the set only partially restored in the end is the crowning touch of the production. Man-made laws and lives will only find true balance in coexistence with Nature; there must be some cracks in the mortal edifice in order for a little magic to get through when we need it most.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is performed in the Festival Glen at UCSC through Sept. 1. For show times and ticket information call 459.2159 or visit www.shakespearesantacruz.org.

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From the July 18-25, 2001, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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