KPBS AIRDATE: August 23, 1995
A midsummer night’s dream and a midsummer nightmare — linked by the same Greek myth. The heroic Theseus conquers the Amazons and claims their queen Hippolyta as his bride. Their wedding takes place in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Later, they have a son, Hippolytus, and later still, Theseus takes another wife, Phaedra, who falls desperately, disastrously in love with her handsome step-son. That ill-fated triangle forms the basis of Eugene O’Neill’s blistering tragedy, “Desire Under the Elms.” Both plays are currently receiving excellent airings on San Diego stages.
Down in Coronado, Lamb’s Players Theatre has underscored the comic in Shakespeare’s magical, pastoral play about the capriciousness of young love. Apparently in direct response to the recent “Midsummer” production at the La Jolla Playhouse, Lamb’s advertised that their Shakespeare had “no gimmicks” and “no pretension.” It’s a safer production, to be sure.
Under the erratic direction of Marion McClinton, the La Jolla “Dream” was transported to New Orleans. The cast, like the costumes, was multi-colored. Puck was a slick, bluesy hornblower; Hippolyta a khaki-clad butch-woman. The faeries were beguilingly transformed into writhing, sensual flappers, and jazz was everywhere. There were moments of genius, especially in the opening scene, but the concept, though daring and provocative, didn’t quite work. One major shortcoming was that the actors just couldn’t handle Shakespeare’s language, couldn’t make it come alive.
But at Lamb’s, the language, the meaning, and the mirth are crystal clear. It isn’t a risky production; it’s a playful one. Director and two-role actor Robert Smyth paints this picture with broad strokes, and it looks just fine, especially with Mike Buckley’s highly imaginative set. While all the principals are nicely cast, the best match is made for David Heath, who is given free leave to do the asinine Bottom’s bombast to death — hilariously.
There is no dark undertone here, nothing ponderous or portentous. Just, Lamb’s Players style, good, clean, high-quality fun.
There’s not much fun and a great deal of portent in “Desire Under the Elms,” where greed and sibling rivalry clash with incest and infanticide. O’Neill’s intense drama, set in mid-nineteenth century New England, drew cops to its New York premiere in 1924, after which it was banned in Boston and London.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, director Michael Pieper has underlined the sexuality. The lustful magnetism between mother and step-son is palpable, with Linda Castro’s wide-eyed, desperate Abbie and Howard Bickle’s seething, vengeful Eben. As father/husband Ephraim, Dale Delmege moves in and out of the lovers’ suffocating circle, but he rarely presents himself as the irascible tyrant he’s described as. His power is in his pensive monologues. The secondary characters are less than thrilling, and the accents are all over the map. The live violin is evocative though repetitive. But the play is the main focus here: O’Neill’s searing, dialectal, poetic language; his irony and gloom, switchbacks and suspense. And on the theoretical plane, we have the application of Freudian psychology, and the contrast between the tight, hard repression of Christianity and the danger of Dionysian abandon. More than a mind-full in any evening of theater.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.