KPBS AIRDATE: April 20, 1994
Say Happy Birthday to the Bard. This week is William Shakespeare’s 430th birthday. To mark the occasion, as well as the 400th anniversary of his most purely romantic comedy, the San Diego State University Drama Department has mounted a thoroughly enjoyable production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The school went all out on this one. The costumes are elaborate and the cast has been in rehearsal since December. It shows. Most of the actors handle the sumptuous, lyrical language with agility. Especially noteworthy are Greg Crowder who’s a rather nimble and muscular version of that merry, mischievous elf, Puck; Luther Hanson, hilarious as the long-winded, asinine Bottom; and most of his cohorts, the ragtag acting band that mounts the play-within-a-play, especially Derek Russell Lane as the language-mangling Peter Quince.
The four young lovers are quite credible, though Hermia wears a ridiculous, red, miniskirted, midriff-baring outfit which is singularly unflattering. The fairies, however, all twelve of them, are very inventively costumed, with wings and ribbons and frills and feathers. They are a sprightly dozen, but their choreography leaves a great deal to be desired; likewise their dance ability. Weren’t there any dance students around to do fairy duty? I was terrified that, in lulling her to sleep, they were going to drop their queen Titania from a perilous height.
On the plus side again, the musical accompaniment, composed by Richard Jennings, is ideally ethereal. But the closing number needs a lot of work; despite a full cast of 29 onstage, it’s vocally very weak and tentative, leaving a bitter after-taste, following two sweet, frothy hours of delight. Under the light but steady directorial hand of Peter Larlham, the production perfectly captures the comedy and spotlights the capriciousness of romance, and how, like Puck, love can turn anyone into an ass. With myriad contemporary allusions, Larlham has rendered Shakespeare totally relevant to a young — or not so young — audience.
Would that it were so down at Southwestern College. Director Carla Kirkwood has taken on a major challenge: “Woyzeck,” the most innovative and influential play of the revolutionary German playwright Georg Buchner, who died in 1837 at age 23. The piece is filled with disillusionment about the time and pessimism about the world. It’s the tragic story of a poor soldier who, as a victim of his class and his society, kills his wife and himself in a fit of jealous rage.
In her director’s notes, Kirkwood acknowledges the play’s importance to modern tragedy in Western drama. She underlines its relevance, as courtrooms across the country confront the question of whether or not social conditions play a role in violent behavior. Never mind that there are a zillion errors and typos in the beautifully printed program, not the least of which is the playwright’s name: it’s always Georg, never George! That is not, ultimately, significant. But what is very significant is that the production is played for comedy. The performances of the bumbling doctor and the bombastic Captain are so over-the-top, so farcical, that they reduce the play to trivia and the audience to hysterics. This is a travesty.
While the set design is marvelous, and the non-linearity of the piece is wonderfully handled in Kirkwood’s inventive direction, only Veronica Valenzuela as the poor, victimized wife Marie, is in any way believable. Although Michael Guerra is too lispy for Woyzeck, he does capture the soldier’s wild and wide-eyed imagination. While the audience cackling and the directorial choices increasingly grated on my nerves during the one-hour production, I could only think of that comic strip, People Unclear on the Concept. This tragedy was played for comedy, but there were no laughs in it for me.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.