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A Midsummer Night's Dream and Alcestis Show What Lurks in the Darkness 

Thursday, Jul 18 2013
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Not since late December and its annual swath of A Christmas Carols invading the region have there been so many productions of a single play presented in single season. Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, or some variation on it, is running or has been presented recently by troupes including Theatricum Botanicum, which stages the play every summer at its Topanga Canyon digs; the Actors' Gang, in a workshop directed by Tim Robbins; Troubadour Theatre Company at Burbank's Falcon Theatre and La Mirada Theatre Center; the New American Theatre at the Odyssey; the Shakespeare Center of L.A. in the Japanese Garden of West L.A.'s Veterans Administration grounds; and the Los Angeles Ballet. If you care to stretch our geography a smidgen, San Diego's Globe Theatre also is doing the play this summer, as are Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, Colorado Shakespeare Festival and Nashville Shakespeare Festival.

This preponderance of Shakespeare's sprites in such a condensed time may be a coincidence, though it certainly has some bearing on a collective impulse, inspired by the play's title, to stage the play in midsummer. Still, why the barrage of Midsummer Dreams this summer, and not earlier summers?

Here's a theory: The multitude of Midsummers this summer is dovetailing with some collective psychic acknowledgment that shadows actually are governing our lives — that what appears to be unfolding, what is reported by our media outlets as unfolding, may be quite different from what is actually unfolding.

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And for this reason, with this tacit like-it-or-lump-it acknowledgment, A Midsummer Night's Dream takes on a rediscovered pertinence.

After all, this is the summer that Edward Snowden disclosed the extent of shadows permeating our personal lives, the extent to which our personal lives get transmitted when we log onto any website, or send an email or a text message.

You may approve or be appalled by Snowden, or by the National Security Administration he has tried to unmask, but there's little doubt that shadows are watching us.

When the spirits Oberon and Puck wander in the forest, invisible to mere mortals, putting potions in the eyes of gullible sprites and humans in order to better control their behavior, that story really is the story of this summer. Titania's line "Methought I was enamored of an ass" — spoken because (though she never understood the clandestine forces at work upon her) she had been spied upon and her behavior chemically altered — is one embodiment of this summer's story of shadows and secrets.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy, a fairy tale, and this allows us to absorb its starker implications with a giggle or a smirk. It is a diversion and an allegory, which is precisely what allows its larger, fresher implications to settle with scant resistance, even subconsciously, into the deeper recesses of our brain. And this is among the reasons the play is so brilliant and enduring.

Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles is presenting a slightly campy, mostly delightful staging outdoors in the Japanese Garden of West L.A.'s VA grounds, where the audience sits on bleachers that surround the action on three sides. There are pipe-like ladders for the sprites to leap into, allowing them a telling omniscience as they overlook the foolish mortals below. For some reason, director Kenn Sabberton sets the action in the late 1950s and early '60s. This decision allows costumer E.B. Brooks to have some period fun with pratfalling Hermia's (Marcella Lentz-Pope) and Helena's (Jenna Johnson) debutante-flavored gowns, which get shredded in the brambles of the woods. The '60s appear in Puck's (nimble yet low-key Wyatt Fenner) striped trousers, though not far enough into the decade for them to be flared.

There's a lovely, farcical turn by Michael Manuel as Nick Bottom, the hammy actor in the local amateur theater troupe. The excellent Paul Perri and Tracy A. Leigh are double-cast as, respectively, Thesius/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania. Although their acting is accomplished, neither reveals much distinction between their two roles. Were it not for the costume changes — Thesius is decorated with medals while Oberon resembles a medieval magician — the two worlds of mortal and fairy aristocracy might have melded into one.

Brian Joseph's original songs and score add a layer of charm, yet the show's star is Trevor Norton's lighting design, which sends beams of colored light onto the wooded hillside behind the platform stage, giving the production a viscerally fantastical appearance, like something out of The Hobbit.

This is not a deep investigation of the play, but it's a play that doesn't necessarily require such probing to make its point.

The world of shadows also informs Alcestis, a new work based on Euripides' play, presented by Critical Mass Performance Group and Theatre @ Boston Court. This world premiere was developed last year in a laboratory at the Getty Center, and its theatrical examination of the intersection of death and marriage is among the highlights of the current local season.

The story is of the marriage between Admetus (Jeremy Shranko) and Alcestis (Kalean Ung). The former is destined to meet an untimely death, until the god Apollo (Lorne Green) — himself serving a sentence on Earth after having annoyed his father, Zeus — intervenes to offer Admetus some alternatives, e.g., the possibility that somebody can die in his stead. After all others refuse to sacrifice themselves, his wife steps up to the plate. After which, they wait. Because life is, in so many ways, waiting for death.

When Alcestis' time comes — a rite gorgeously staged by director Nancy Keystone — Admetus pleads with her not to die. Her response is quizzical: "Oh my God. Admetus, you wanted to live, and so I said I would die for you, and now you're not happy and you want me to live. There's nothing I can do to satisfy you."

In such lines, expressed with weary, comical annoyance, comes the insight that death isn't just about the end of life, it's an aspect that informs the quality of our life. Each time death appears, perhaps felling somebody close to us, we presume it will bind us, communally, and it does for a while, until we return to former habits and follies, which are really the shadows we can barely discern, controlling us.

Nick Santoro turns in a gorgeous cameo as sportsman Herakles — not the sharpest pencil in the box, but brave enough to seek Alcestis in the underworld and return her.

Keystone's staging is a kind of marvel — workshop-simple and yet elegant. The adaptation she's concocted is explicitly about the lives we lead today, but without any winking glibness. It arouses more smiles than laughs, because the company's investigation of what it means to be alive, and the shadows that impede that life, are so thoughtful and tender.

ALCESTIS | Conceived by Nancy Keystone and Critical Mass Performance Group from Euripides' play | Critical Mass Performance Group and Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through July 28 | (626) 683-6883 | bostoncourt.com

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM | By William Shakespeare | Presented by the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles at the Japanese Garden of the West L.A. Veterans Administration grounds, north of the Brentwood Theater | Tues.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through July 28 | (213) 481-2273 | shakespearecenter.org

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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