Review: 70/30's Midsummer Nights Dream

by JP Schuffman

With their first foray into Shakespeare,  Artistic Director Tyler Gregory and the motley band of thespians at 70/30 Creatives clamber, scamper, joke and jibe their way through an 80 minute Midsummer Night's Dream that, for fans of the Bard constitutes a evening not to be missed, and for everyone else, serves as a highly approachable point of entry to old Bill's best known comedy.

There is a superb quality of lightness about 70/30's staging of Midsummer that I haven't seen in production of Shakespeare for a long time. It is the kind of lightness that you might feel listening to a close group of friends tell you about a particularly crazy Friday night out. It is a lightness that pervades every aspect of the show's production, from staging and costumes, to the seemingly effortless delivery of lightning fast rhyming couplets and slapstick comedy. 

Every company that has produced Shakespeare in the last fifty years has intoned some version of the following line in their publicity, "We are focusing on making sure our actors understand every word they say." 70/30's production marks the first time in a long time that I actually believe they achieved it. While the technical capabilities and experience of the players range from the fully professional to budding amateur, even the most novice actor on stage knew what their character was saying, not just in general, but specifically: line by line, word by word. And this universal competence allowed the action of the play to flow more rapidly and effortlessly than most of the Shakespeare I've seen staged. It is clear that Gregory's atypical process and the cast's protracted table work paid huge dividends.   

Any staging of Midsummer relies on the complete ensemble to keep it humming along, and the supporting cast does an excellent job of presenting solid humor throughout. It is very much to the credit of the less seasoned actors that none of them fall into the traps that typically accompany speaking Shakespeare (long unearned pauses, over gesturing, tonal monotony, etc). And it is to the credit of the more seasoned members that there is no grandstanding or upstaging to be seen. This is a group that understands the power of an ensemble, and it is only from the entire ensemble's solid base of textual competence that the cast's principal actors are able to shine.

Emma Wright (Helena) and Kris Walker (Hermia) display a range of comedic timing and physicality that you expect more from a veteran comedic duo of Vaudeville than two young actresses still ascending their careers. The pair display a broad spectrum of emotional expression with dexterity, poise, and craft, even illuminating a rare and surprisingly striking moment of earnest heartbreak within the text before plunging back again into the play's more lighthearted antics.    

With impish charisma, sprightly physicality, and bright vocal tone, Raine Palmer seems to channel a young Sandy Duncan in her delightful portrayal of Puck. For more than an hour she climbs, twirls, spies, plots, and comments on the frantic traffic of the stage with an energy and intensity that reflects and amplifies the audience's own amusement, and assure us that, in the end, all will be well.

Sakie Marie Harp is perfectly cast in the role of Titania, fully embracing the earthy feminine of the fairy queen's political and sexual power while still being unafraid of going for the cheep sight gag when the moment is right. Played against Gregory's understated and approachable Oberon, the two experienced dramatists weave together some of the production's most expertly honed moments of detailed scene work. 

Then there's Billy Kyle Roach, whose presentation of Nick Bottom can leave no doubt of his place within the community as a comedic force to be reckoned with. Roach explodes onto the stage as the bold, bumbling, sweet, over confident lunk of an actor-turned-ass, while notably and commendably remaining a dedicated part of the ensemble, taking care to share the stage and give his fellow Mechanicals room to work their own highly effective moments of comedy.

Finally, it is definitely worth looking out for Gray Casterline who, though the role does not offer much in the way of comedic meat, still impresses in her portrayal of Lysander. She exhibits a level of technical subtly and a physical command of her character that is very gratifying to watch in such a young actress.

The set and lighting design of his production are nothing to speak of: a few hastily painted rehearsal cubes and the odd lamp or two. But, really that's all that is needed for a show whose greatest strength lies in its simplicity and portability. (The show is being staged at Market Square, Modern Studio, and Ijams Nature Center all in just one weekend: May 26-28.) Perhaps a bit more could have been done to help the audience follow the transitions between Athens and the Forest, and the sole scenic change that does occur toward the end of the play is a bit clunky, but those are minor quibbles.

Worthy of mention for their effectiveness are the costumes of Arri Lemons, a visual artists who is quickly gaining local recognition for her multifaceted design capabilities. Anachronism reigns supreme in the eclectic mix of pieces seemingly cobbled together from personal effects, wardrobe departments, old steamer trunks, and a few fruitful trips to thrift stores. Her playful and unassuming design fits perfectly with the overall aesthetic and provides necessary appeal to a staging whose only visual spectacle lies in the players themselves. 

There is no denying that sometimes with Shakespeare the language can create a barrier for some audience members. Even though the players do an excellent job of speaking the verse with emotional clarity, if you are unfamiliar with the play, I still recommend a quick glance here at the show's plot and major characters to keep from getting left behind by the blistering pace of events. Also to that end, some of the players might benefit from slowing down, speaking up, and articulating a bit more clearly, especially at the top of the show when the audience is trying to figure out who's who and what's what. That said, the show offers more than enough bold physical comedy and clearly crafted humor that even someone new to the Bard will find plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, while those trained to catch the more subtle humor in the language will find themselves grinning for most of the show.

These days any company that takes on Shakespeare is taking a risk. To do so on a company's maiden voyage, with an unproven cast, limited budget, and multiple venues, is even more daunting. I am pleased to say that with Midsummer Night's Dream 70/30 Creatives beats the odds, and provides not only an excellent night of theatre, but leaves us excited to see what they are planning next.

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JP Schuffman is the Managing Artistic Director of the Knoxville Theatre Club, an occasional critic, poet, and full time theatre nerd.