Shakespeare Festival/L.A. opens its seventh season with a winner. Director Will Roberson transforms Shakespeare’s Athenian wood-nestled setting in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to contemporary inner-city Los Angeles. Other than the opening, he does so with so much charm and physical comedy that his vision delights and refreshes — as did the light drizzle that fell on audience faces opening night in the outdoor amphitheater.
While some may find Fred M. Duer’s set design–complete with densely graffitied walls, yellow police tape and razor wire–an urban blight, spiritually foreboding and a complete antithesis to the play’s sylvan allure, the production becomes much like “West Side Story”: Magic happens even in the inner city.
The play opens with police holding plastic riot shields and pushing their way down the imposing concrete stairs that lead from City Hall, clearing the way for a news crew and for Tom Bradley-esque Theseus (Stephen Burks) who speaks of his wedding to socialite Hippolyta (Cynthia Bond).
A local group of civic workers– Nick Bottom (Fred Sanders), Francis Flute (Brian Joseph), Peter Quince (Patrick Thomas O’Brien), Tom Snout (Rodney Rincon) and Snug (Jesus Ontiveros) — decide they will prepare a little play to entertain Theseus.
Punk-rocker Hermia (Ellen Idleson) hears from her father that she must marry well-to-do businessman Demetrius (Benjamin Bratt), but she loves fellow punk Lysander (Nicholas Sadler).
Hermia and Lysander escape to the woods–in this case a Skid Row-ish area near an abandoned tunnel–where the workers happen to rehearse, where love-smitten Helena (Shana Wride) has followed Demetrius who has followed Hermia , and where fairy king Oberon (Patrick O’Connell) argues with his queen, Titania (Gina Spellman).
While Idleson’s Hermia comes off as plain and humorless, several other cast members effuse high spirits. In particular, Sanders makes Bottom a gleeful, egocentric buffoon. Wride reels with smitten love and becomes laughably overwhelmed with two suitors who are in themselves grandly funny.
O’Connell as Oberon, Spellman as Titania and Burks as Theseus add a regal and powerful air.
Caryn Neman’s Fellini-esque costume design — from a Bottom who wears a carved-up bleach bottle as a helmet to the fairies who appear as if dressed eclectically from Aaardvark’s on Melrose — keeps the play on the fun side.
Live music from John Parmik, Tim Emmons, Nick Batzdorf and Terry Janow, and the light design by Michael Gilliam, lend subtle richness and add to the quality of the production values, which are high throughout.
Considering that admission is a donation of canned food, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has to be the best theatrical value in town.