“ A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM ” at the Fritz Theatre & “ THE MASK OF MORIARTY ” at the Old Globe Theatre
KPBS AIRDATE: September 24, 1997
If you like your literary sources pure, better stay home this week. It’s a time for great literature to be turned on its ear. Enter the theater at your own risk.
At the Fritz, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” takes a somewhat sinister look at the comedy typically played quite lovingly and lightheartedly. Here, Lysander’s words to Hermia are taken at face value: “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Love, in this production, is more like what Romeo described to Mercutio: “too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.” Here, lovers are scorned, spurned, insulted, tormented and humiliated. The lovers’ reunions at the end are not joyful; at the wedding feast, the men sit with the men, the women cluster behind them, and there’s a palpable undertone of unease and dissatisfaction. It’s a deliciously dark take on the play; director Bryan Bevell and his generally capable cast have played it to the hilt, with all the silliness and physicality they could muster. Entrances are made from the skylights, the angular and steeply raked stage is downright dangerous at times, and the be-sneakered acrobatics match the Banana Republic outfits. These woods are spartan but scary; the fairy sprites are goggled henchmen to their masters. Oberon, the fairy king, has a Machiavellian look; he takes delight in wreaking havoc. His clear attraction to his devoted servant, Puck, makes his desire for his wife’s changeling all the more understandable.
No one is in any way likable here; the callow women turn petulant and bitchy; the shallow men are lecherous, pugnacious and self-aggrandizing. The young, preppy suitors even do pepper-spray battle, which is quite comical. But though Bevell has done a masterful job, some of his directorial choices are questionable. Why, for instance, cross-cast the Amazon Hippolyta and the fairy queen Titania, but not also, as is custom, Oberon and Theseus, especially since Michael Severance is the play’s dominant presence? And why no transition in behavior when the hilariously emoting Bottom is transformed into an ass? Ron Choularton loses all his side-splitting steam during his metamorphosis.
But these are petty points. The production takes a quirky view of the classic comedy, and it makes you see, quite clearly, “what fools these mortals be.” And the bored, desultory immortals don’t come off much better.
The tone isn’t even across the large, 15-person cast, but Bevell’s conception is nailed with bulls-eye precision by Severance as Oberon; Keith Wright as a Puckishly bemused and sometimes jealous Puck; Laura Arnold as an amorous young lover turned foot-stamping harridan; Christopher Gottschalk as a seriously ingenuous would-be thespian, Peter Quince; and Frank DiPalermo as a slyly smirking, lascivious Demetrius. It’s all great fun, if you like your inanity laced with strychnine. Kudos to Bevell, and hail to the Fritz. They never fail to turn your world, your stomach or your perceptions upside down and inside out.
For a safer route to silliness, we turn to the Globe. The West coast premiere of “The Mask of Moriarty” might be more aptly dubbed “Much Ado About Nothing.” Hugh Leonard’s play is a trifle; it starts out as a clever spoof of every mystery Sherlock Holmes ever solved. Then it gets too wrapped up in plot contrivances and complexities, and becomes less farcical than nonsensical, oddly taking itself to seriously as it gets sillier.
Devotés of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will recognize all kinds of references and satiric moves, but ultimately one thinks, so what? Most worthy of your attention are the elaborate, ever-changing sets, but when money is so tight, and arts funding is shrinking by the second, is this level of opulence really necessary? Or warranted? Nonetheless, it is a joy to watch Paxton Whitehead and Tom Lacy, apparently having a ball, as the hyper-perceptive Holmes and his loyal sidekick, here a rather pouty, bumbling and dim-witted Dr. Watson, who, for no apparent reason, does a turn in drag.
All told, it seems like a fat wad of cash to shell out — by the theater and the theatergoers — for such a slim diversion.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.