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THEATER REVIEW

This `Midsummer' has a rich Southern accent

July 05, 2006|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

The prospect of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" set on an abandoned plantation in the Deep South of the 1930s might drive Shakespeare purists to down a mint julep or three. Ah do declah, this is certainly not the Bahd ah was expectin'.

Yet it requires little time for the conceit to take an agreeable hold in director Lane Davies' lively and very funny revival, which opens the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival's 10th summer of family-friendly outdoor stagings in Kingsmen Park at California Lutheran University.

Credit Davies for the courage of his convictions -- he's taken the resetting beyond a stylistic theme for costumes, scenery and bluegrass band accompaniment and infused even the dialogue with period Southern accents.

The unlikely juxtaposition works surprisingly well, thanks to a cast so closely in tune with their characters that they clearly convey the meaning of the lines through drawls that, within the bounds of the original meter, take on a unique rhythmic lilt of their own.

Familiar figures from this perennial Shakespeare favorite gain fresh vigor here. With genteel elegance, Davies and Ruth Cordell enhance their dual roles as the respective rulers of the human and fairy domains.

Southern belles are particularly ripe archetypes for comic inflection, and making the most of the opportunity are Jane Longenecker as the much sought-after Hermia and JJ Rogers as the desperate Helena.

Brett Elliot and Derek Medina bring sharp male rivalry to the young suitors, which continues unabated even when their romantic loyalties are magically reversed by fairy intervention (such is the power of raging hormones that the actual target of their desire is merely a matter of circumstance).

Andrew Fox's barefoot, overall-clad Puck heads up a contingent of fairies that look like refugees from "Tobacco Road." Under their spell, the male leads' competitive impulses, coupled with Hermia's crumbling assurance and Helena's newfound manipulative power, set the stage for the second half's superbly choreographed brawls.

In a parallel enchantment, Richard Winterstein brings round-eyed hysteria worthy of Zero Mostel to the hapless rube, Bottom, as he's transformed into a braying donkey pursued by the enamored fairy queen.

Physical comedy is one of the production's strong suits, and proves invaluable in salvaging the always problematic extended postscript, in which Bottom and his pals stage an atrociously bad play-within-the-play for the already reconciled couples.

Nevertheless, the consistently breezy staging skirts the text's darker elements of heartache and obsession, not to mention the obvious issue raised by the Deep South resetting: race. A black Lysander, for example, would give real bite to the social unacceptability of his marriage to Hermia and their need to run away together.

Not to take anything from Elliot's fine performance, but for that kind of tension you'll need to look to the Kingsmen Festival's more serious season offering -- "Othello."

*

"A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Where: Kingsmen Park at California Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks

When: 8 p.m. Fridays through Sundays

Ends: July 16

Price: $10, lawn admission; $50-$65 premium lawn box seating

Contact: (805) 493-3455 or www.kingsmenshakespeare.org

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

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