Around Ashland,
By Becky Gilmer

I am pleased to present Becky Gilmer, a new Food for Thought contributing author, as she shares her astute observations about events and places in and around Ashland, Ore., Please join me in welcoming Becky. Doni

Sunday dawned clear and bright; a perfect day to stroll through Lithia Park or grab a sandwich on the patio of your favorite coffee shop. As far as I could see the only good reason to stay inside was to sit in the darkened Angus Bowmer Theatre and absorb Shakespearean prose.

With Ashland a straight shot up Interstate 5, north from my home town, I’ve been reveling in the culture and entertainment that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has offered since I was a tot.

Experience has helped me develop a high expectation for Ashland’s productions and its quaint quirkiness. However, when I bought tickets to this season’s run of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” I didn’t realize my expectations were not nearly high enough.

I will admit to more than a twinge of wariness when the blackness and hush were broken by a well-oiled moustache and pair of sunglasses posing as Theseus, the Duke of Athens. Next to him in the spotlight was Hippolyta, whose hair looked like a space helmet. They were posing on giant, white minimalist chic thrones on a set that had stepped off a ’70’s talk show. Despite my initial feelings of shock, it was soon apparent that although the play was a somewhat loose adaptation of this infamous work, the interpretations were well-thought-out and well-acted.

The premise of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” is steeped with more mysteries and superstitions than any of Shakespeare’s other work. It’s always been my favorite. Hermia loves Lysander as he loves her. Helena loves Demetrius, but he loves Hermia. Hermia’s mother wants her to marry Demetrius, and the fairy royalty is feuding, causing chaos among the human couples.

The four Athenian lovers added humor to their roles with believable physical comedies. Emily Sophia Knapp played off Hermia as pigeon-toed in her innocence, coy in her love, and later as fierce in her pain – despite wearing only underwear -evoked sighs and chuckles.

Kjerstine Anderson played a slouchy, pouty and then enraged Helena with good-natured humor that came through to the audience. Dressed in a babydoll dress that barely covered her ample bottom, Anderson leaped onto a giant furry flower-shaped chair that must have been confiscated from the set of the popular Mike Meyers’ movie “Austin Powers” – and threw a tantrum that would shame the tantrum-throwing queen of the kindergarten class.

Lysander and Demetrius, played by Tasso Feldman and Christopher Michael Rivera, respectively, had impressive character development. Rivera oozed confidence and sophistication, until his defenses were down and he was in matching boxers and undershirt; then he looked like the unsure gawky young man Demetrius was on the inside. Feldman played his role like the cute little spaniel that you fed one day and now won’t leave your doorstep.

Bottom the Weaver and his merry troop of worker actors displayed perhaps the grooviest interpretations of all. With a rumble and bump a Volkswagen van, complete with a peace sign and flower montage, rolled onto the stage. The door slid open and out poured the band members. If the props department had added a smoke machine it would have looked like a scene from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Bottom the Weaver, played by Ray Porter, had Dude Lebowski’s hair and a pair of red bell-bottoms that flared over the tiniest pointed boots. This group played off each other well, timing their lines and movements to stir up laughs from those not sold on Shakespeare.

Perhaps the oddest novelty was the role of Francis Flute, the bellows maker, played by Eileen DeSandre: a woman playing a man who has to play a woman in the troupe’s play intended for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. DeSandre pleaded with her director to not make her play a woman. She presented her cause by deftly pointing to her chin and declaring she was growing a beard. Seventies’ Roller-Derby hot pants made an appearance, along with sweat bands and a costume better fitted for a pirate than an actor or working man. These beatniks made a merry band of players whose deliberate awkwardness was both humorous and touching.

The fairy world however, nearly stole the show. When Puck, played by John Tufts, and Moth, played by Mark Bedard, had their tête-à-tête in the forest discussing their respective masters, the culmination was almost unbearable. In neon tutus, spandex pants, unlaced combat boots and black mesh muscle shirts, Tufts and Bedard vibed to the beat of ’90’s techno and danced under throbbing lights and disco balls. All five fairies, including Puck, were dressed to the nines like they were going to a ’90’s canyon rave, and they squealed and giggled as they caused merry mischief. Tufts had a few musical numbers, and his talents were well-rounded.

Christine Albright also sang as Titania; with neon lights entwined in her hair she hip-swished and sashayed through her role. She even slept on an even bigger, fluffy neon flower cushion than Helena’s, that was rigged to elevate high above the stage like a tree.

Cobwebb, Pease Blossom and Mustard Seed, played by Eddie Lopez, Neil Shah and Edgar Miguel Sanchez, simpered and shrieked more than 12-year-old girls at a slumber party. One bit involving Lysander’s flashlight scaring them was ridiculously funny, and their outlandish poses and energetic dancing made the techno beat work. Without their flamboyant flippancy the other characters and props would have seemed out of place.

However, even the smallest roles were well-played. Hermia’s mother, Egeus, played by Linda Alper, was a very believable loving-but-overprotective mother grasping for the next rung on the social ladder. Even Philostrate, the Master of the Revels, played by Jeany Park, said many lines where she had none. Her stiff body language and demure appearance – until the Duke’s wedding day when she was besplendored in silver sequins – spoke volumes about her role, position and character.

The sexuality level was amped up along with the fun levels. Male, well-toned fairy flesh was shown off in fishnets and pleather, and even Oberon, played by Kevin Kenerly, was a massive muscle of a man who marched around shirtless. Even Feldman and Rivera were knock-kneed in their boxer shorts, overwhelmed by passion and having 10 grabbing hands apiece. Anderson wound up barefoot, in her underwear, with one stocking missing from stumbling through the “woods” – while Knapp, following Hermia’s disposition, wore a pink nightie that really made her look like a pair of legs with a blond wig.

I didn’t feel the sensuality was out of place, as Shakespeare wrote this work a little racy for the lower-class milieu, but it was definitely more flesh than I expected. For a moment I thought I had stumbled into a drag club in New York City, complete with techno beat and fairies.

Shakespeare is undoubtedly a classic author; his work indubitably considered some of the greatest. However, despite his poignant observations, humor for natural human folly and talent for penning both down, his work has become more difficult to relate to. Flowery prose is so different from today’s text-message slang. Social rules have changed, and what was originally intended for the uneducated masses has become mostly accessible only for the opposite. Shakespeare’s humor is often crass. His stories always involve violence, love, and sometimes incest and murder.

However, the double entendres and witticisms are often missed in the massive servings of words. In these times of video games, i-pods and reality television, even books written within the last 20 years – in plain English – are falling to the wayside in the entertainment industry. Shakespeare will be the exception? Forget it! People want their attention grabbed and held from the first second, but these days it takes more and more to grab it and hold it.

The performance was ostentatious, but the techno music, retro set designs and costumes, and the addition of modern props – like the van and a record player – were fun and made the jokes more accessible to people who have a hard time understanding Elizabethan English.

Other than making the play more accessible to the audience, I don’t think the retro set designs and props added depth to the story. I found the play both fun and interesting, but I can see where a die-hard Shakespeare fan would be less than thrilled. For someone who is already familiar with the story, and expecting a traditional execution and performance, the shocks will just keep on coming, act after act.

In the end, however, it was the Elizabethan prose that seemed out of place as the play seemed more centered on the crazy props and exaggerated characters than on the original plot.

But if you keep an open mind, and go with a desire to laugh and watch truly skilled actors, “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” is a quirky piece of thoroughly enjoyable entertainment.

Becky Gilmer was raised in Northern California, but crossed state lines to Southern Oregon to attend college. A communications major at Southern Oregon University, Becky is studying journalism and anthropology. Her ultimate goal is to work as a travel journalist for National Geographic.

Becky Gilmer

grew up in Northern California but crossed state lines to attend college in Southern Oregon. A communications major at Southern Oregon University, Becky is studying journalism and anthropology. Her goal is to work as a travel journalist for National Geographic.

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