From Top to Bottom

Arizona Rep students turn Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's into an intoxicating Dream

Corned beef is OK in a pinch, but I'd sooner die than eat rye bread, Thousand Island dressing, Swiss cheese or sauerkraut. 

Put all that nasty stuff together, though, and, voilà, you've got yourself a scrumptious sandwich.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of William Shakespeare's many Reubens. Created about 420 years ago, it combines a bunch of things you might not like—squabbling fairies, royal weddings, bad community theater and a braying ass—into the most delectable concoction.

But the Bard's most popular comedy is hardly foolproof. It demands a special alchemy that's hard to achieve and sustain. Plus, like all great dreams, it can turn into a nightmare real quick.

Happily, there's nothing scary about Arizona Repertory Theatre's production, which captivated the opening-night crowd last week. ART, a showcase for the cream of the acting crop at the University of Arizona, made this old comedy gold again.

Gold and wet, that is.

It's drizzling as we take our seats on all sides of a square platform in the center of the black-box Tornabene Theatre. The thin, symmetrical curtains of rain suggest an upside-down fountain more than clouds opening.

The water—real, but not natural—tells us right away that we are in a place that plays by different rules. Even before the stage fills with fairy kings and queens, human royalty and attractive young Greeks with hyperactive hormones, we know we're a long way from the ho-hum world where we mortals usually be.

As directed by Stephen Wrentmore (Arizona Theatre Company's associate artistic director), this Midsummer Night's Dream clocks in at a sleek, intermissionless 90 minutes. It's sexy and strangely compelling, with a rigorous internal logic that's reflected in every element of the design.

The play's life-is-but-a-dream theme is often presented with an opulent, flowery or otherwise show-offy production design. But ART's technical team succeeds without calling undue attention to itself. Don Fox's lighting and Nicole Suerez's costumes neatly complement Bruce Brockman's understated, inventive set and help delineate the different factions at work.

And so it's once more into the woods with the young Athenians Lysander (Cooper Hallstrom), Hermia (Heather Marie Cox), Demetrius (Max Tzannes) and Helena (Sydnee Ortiz, a particular delight).

Their story of mismatched love, complicated further by misplaced love potions, is interspersed with three other plotlines: the royal wedding of Theseus (David Hentz) and Hippolyta (Kate Strauss); the fighting king and queen of the fairies (Jordan Letson and Chris Okawa); and the efforts of Peter Quince (Paul Michael Thompson) and his Rude Mechanicals, an acting troupe of dubious ability, to put on a play worthy of a royal wedding.

Wrentmore, who adapted Shakespeare's play with dramaturg Amber Justmann, has put together a cast that's dreamy from top to Bottom (Owen Virgin, funny as hell). The students are clearly at home with the language—an intoxicating blend of prose, blank verse and rhyme—freeing them to relax and have an absolute blast. Their love for the material is obvious and infectious.

But thankfully, this is not one of those shtick-filled free-for-alls where anything goes because, what the Puck, it's all a dream anyway. You'll notice that the sensational actor who plays Bottom, the bombastic star of the hysterical play within the play, goes way over the top. And it works because he's the only one who goes there.

Grace Kirkpatrick deploys every muscle in her body to play Puck, an irresponsible sprite who should never be trusted to administer mind-altering drugs. Kirkpatrick's Puck finds plenty of ways to entertain herself and us.

The actors who play actors likewise find laughs in unexpected places. Nathan Adriel Oppenheimer needs almost no words to make Starveling's Moon hilarious. Ditto for Carli Naff's Snout, who holds a couple of bricks and makes the Wall a perfectly funny partition.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, which closes ART's remarkable season, is fast-paced but never rushed, well-spoken but never stilted and lovable through and through.

I fell for it and didn't want to wake up.

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