Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009

UWM's Midsummer Night in Winter

Theatre Department Stages Shakespeare

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The current UWM production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the fourth that I’ve seen in a year and a half. American Players Theatre’s production was an interesting big-budget show in a beautiful outdoor theatre in Spring Green with a modern production design featuring a beautiful set by the Tony Award-winning scenic designer of August: Osage County. Door Shakespeare’s comparatively modest outdoor production was a much higher energy, much more intimate staging in a simple clearing in the woods. More recently, Carte Blanche Studios brought the comedy to its similarly intimate indoor space. Now through December 13th, UWM Theatre stages its production on its spacious main stage. Far from flawless, the UWM production is an enjoyable balance of elements with some really impressive performances.

R.H. Graham’s set is simple and tasteful. A chessboard rug rests on the stage floor, which is fashioned in the shape of a large tree stump. There are long hanging cascades of what appears to be bamboo off in the background. Steven Roy White’s lighting scheme adds depth to the scenic elements. Pamela J. Rehberg’s costume design makes for a particularly powerful visual centerpiece. The production may not be the most elaborate visual scheme, but it makes a relatively modest budget look absolutely beautiful.

Director James Tasse has put together a fairly balanced production with captivating performances on both the human and superhuman levels of the comic fantasy. On the human end of the story, Jason Waszak and Grace DeWolff have an engrossing chemistry as lovers Lysander and Hermia, who must flee their parents in order to be together. Now in his final performance with UWM, Waszak’s stage charisma has developed quite a bit. Here we see flashes of a nearly heroic Waszak who is at his best interacting with DeWolff. Grace DeWolff is irresistible as Hermia.  She puts in a physically dynamic performance as appealing in intensely physical moments as it is in more subtle exchanges. DeWolff is endearing in moments of affection, but it's the physical comedy near the end of the play that she really dazzles.

On the more fantastic end of things, Tommy Stevens is suitably regal as Oberon, king of the fairies. The costuming on Oberon is the best I’ve seen in any production in the past year and a half. With the aid of fantastic costuming and an authentic beard Stevens caries himself a few feet taller than his actual height in a role that seems both regal and playful. He’s well matched by David Walker Rothrock as his servant Puck. Rothrock carries himself with the grace of a dancer. The way he moves gives one a sense that Puck is in total contact with his surroundings. Rothrock seems intimately aware of nearly every inch of space onstage. He’s playing the animalistic side of Puck in a very catlike manner. It’s comical at first seeing him wash himself on the edge of the stage, but Rothrock makes it look very, very natural.

Somewhere in the midst of it all, there is the play within the play . . . a part of the script that always feels a bit superfluous to me. The story of a group of amateur actors trying to stage a romance is cute, but it doesn’t seem all that essential to the rest of the story. Shakespeare himself seemed to have some awareness of this. The title of the play The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe is a bit ostentatious and every character in the sub-play seems to be reaching a bit beyond their capabilities. Director James Tasse has done a pretty good job of orchestrating the production in a way that makes the subplot work. Of particular note here is the nuanced comedic performance of Dustin Schmaus as playwright and director Peter Quince. He’s at the heart of a theatrical production which has been written by Shakespeare to be comically bad. He’s quietly savvy in his demeanor in a way that plays brilliantly against the stumble and bluster of Evan James Koepnick as enthusiastically vain actor Nick Bottom.

UWM’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through December 13th at UWM’s Mainstage Theatre.

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