Tessa McShane & Tory Parker in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Hannah Brooks

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By William Shajkespeare
Directed by Clarity Hagan

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Reinterpreting the plays of William Shakespeare is a time-honored tradition. The joke now is how rare it has become to see a straight-up Elizabethan setting. While this new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not Elizabethan, one could argue that embedding the action in an actual forest setting is truer to the play. The faeries in the wood is what is best-remembered about this iconic creation, not the framing plot of Theseus and Hippolyta in Athens.

There is so much going on in Clarity Hagan’s production, so much to talk about, that I don’t stand a chance of covering it all here and now, but that it is staged at The Louisville Nature Center is THE crucial element. The audience watches the first few scenes in a paved area directly in front of the administration building before being led into a clearing located just deep enough to surround you with trees. The lighting and sound design are all natural, there are no microphones, and audience members can sit on fallen tree trunks and stumps. This is immersive theatre.

Aside from the organic quality of the setting, the production fully exploits the opportunity to completely blur the lines between backstage, performance space, and the audience. Aside from action in the clearing, one could watch players moving through the tress at a distance, always in character and often with bits of business that defined the performance space as nearly the entire wooded area on the grounds of the venue.

The freedom inherent in the environment is exemplified by the concentration on queer identity and feminisim. The opening night audience was attuned to that sensibility, with Egeus’ complaints about his daughter in the opening scenes drawing laughter and gasps of astonishment:

I beg the ancient privilege of Athens:
As she is mine, I may dispose of her,
Which shall be either to this gentleman
 Or to her death, according to our law
 Immediately provided in that case.

That there is a queer sensibility working through virtuall every creative decision is not just a declaration of this new company’s mission statement, it also infuses the play with such fresh energy that it feels like it was written yesterday, a journey into a magical forest where all loves are possible not just temporarily but possibly forever.

And the four lovers lost in the woods are played by two male presenting actors and two female presenting actors (Caisey Cole, Brooke Morrison, Izzy Keel, Vic Leon Reibel) whose eventual match up is non-traditional but still as romantic as is required. Add that Tory Parker is a sarcastic Oberon essayed with relaxed but firm authority paired with Tessa McShane’s Titania, a florid, quixotic personality, and the gift is an interpretation that reflects this moment and perhaps a better future.

Hagan’s direction is inventive and funny, and so much of what is happening is highly unorthodox, that at times I wondered if it was distracting from the text. The plot of Midsummer is beautifully structured but also so familiar that it can be a challenge to judge the effectiveness of the delivery against my own knowledge and preconception. In the end, the language is clear and handled in a matter-of-fact fashion that doesn’t sacrifice intention. Hagan’s cutting is well-judged and economical but maintains the story, so that this is one of the most accessible productions of one of Shakespeare’s most-produced plays that I have ever seen.

It was nice to see Brooke Morrison back in action as Lysander, and Izzy Keel delivered some of the best work I have seen from them as Helena, while Vic Leon Reibel was a perfectly smart-ass, numbskull dude as Demetrius and a master of slapstick. Like a textbook on how it should be done. Caisey Cole was the unchanging Hermia, an anchor surrounded by a storm of emotional confusion. She also provided one of the best and most-subtle facial asides, made even more impactful because they were about two feet from me.

The ensemble was overall consistent and effective, but I would also call out Zac Campell-Hoogendyk and Mary Banjuko, very good as Hippolyta and Theseus, Banjuko a commanding presence and Campbell-Hoogendyk rather wry and thoughtful. Often these roles are underserved but not here.

Hannah Brooks’ costume work is eclectic, not tied to any specific period but it seemingly reflects expressions of freedom in Western culture from the 1960s forward.

The Rustics and their play-within-a-play that closes Midsummer are pretty good, but they rely on Zach Stone’s silly and well-timed Bottom more than most productions I have experienced. But it all works. And they manner in which Hagan stages the scene brilliantly underscores the Mystery Scene Theatre aspect of the Athenians reaction.

When the lovers exit the forest after the effects of Oberon’s potions, they have been restored to their senses but also forever changed and it shows in their movement and faces. Yet they seem uncertain about what exactly transpired in the forest. What happens in the forest stays in the forest. 

Featuring Ellie Archer, Mary Banjuko, Alex Biscardi, Caisey Cole, Griffin Cobb, Fallon Crawley, Kim Ding, Zac Campbell-Hoogendyk, Izzy Keel, Katie Krutsick, Erica McClure, Tessa McShane, Brooke Morrison, Tory Parker, Rocky Powell, Vic Leon Reibel, & Zack Stone

 A Midsummer Night’s Dream

May 11- 14 @ 7:00 pm

three witches shakespeare
Louisville Nature Center
3745 Illinois Avenue
Louisville, KY 40213

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Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.