Playing with Shakespeare: “Midsummer” at ZJU

Challenge:  Trim a Shakespeare play down to an hour, and do it in a black box that has only two entrances (both stage left).  Ready?

Director Denise Devin has been taking this dare for a few years now.  Her latest response, a madly compressed Midsummer Night’s Dream, erupts Friday nights in North Hollywood.

Lamont Webb, Ashley Fuller, Quinn Knox, Katherine Bowman, Melissa Virgo, David Wyn Harris, Emily Cunningham

Lamont Webb, Ashley Fuller, Quinn Knox, Katherine Bowman, Melissa Virgo, David Wyn Harris, Emily Cunningham

Midsummer is a fairy tale.  It has wings — half of its characters are fairies, including the Fairy King and Fairy Queen, and it’s narrated by that most mischievous of fairies, Puck.  It also has weight — all its mortal characters must walk, run, stumble and sleep on the ground.  The more you reduce its weight, the higher it will fly.

Keeping her eye on the wings, Devin scalpels the text neatly.  The play gets lighter and lighter, lifting into the breezy airs of comedy.

What disappears is almost unnoticeable.  First goes an amazing amount of repetition.  Shakespeare was playing in a large open-air theatre, to a boisterous crowd ordering and consuming lunch (with beer).  His actors couldn’t just say something once and expect to be heard.   They couldn’t do something in Act I and trust the onlookers to remember it in Act III.  Devin’s actors, in a quiet 48-seat box,  can.

Also excised is most of what the Elizabethans prized as “wit” — nimble wordplay, and the twisting and turning of ideas. These intellectual puzzles, parallels and paradoxes amuse (if the actors can “understand and deliver”).  But they take time, add weight.  Out.

What’s left is fast and furious — and fun.  Consider the opener.

Duke Theseus and Hippolyta stand shoulder to shoulder, facing out.  In an adjacent cluster stand Egeus, daughter Hermia and the suitors Demetrius and Lysander.  Egeus explains the problem, the Duke tersely lays out the options, and we’re off!  With 58 lines of dialog  on board, instead of 122.

Hermia and the boys have said with their faces and bodies what their feelings are.  An equally silent Hippolyta has used a sudden shrug and turn to make clear where she stands, unearthing a laugh where none was before.

Devin not only reduces the lines, she cuts the body freight.  Of her dozen players, only four play solo parts (the lovers).  The rest all juggle two, three and even four roles.  This makes changing in ZJU’s  tiny backstage even more frantic than usual, but far less congested.

Some things, Devin expands.

She uses multi-part casting to enhance the story’s built-in symmetry.  Duke Theseus and his bride become fairyland’s King Oberon and Queen Titania, and the tradesmen rehearsing “Pyramus and Thisbe” turn into the fairies who attend the royal pair.

She also extends the text’s cross-gender playfulness.  Shakespeare tweaked his era’s all-male casts by making Flute reluctantly portray the lady Thisbe.  Devin also puts the same actor (David Wyn Harris) in a wig and tutu as the largest — and hairiest — of the fairies.  She adds a decidedly female Puck (Katherine Bowman), women as tradesmen Snug (Emily Cunningham) and Snout (Melissa Virgo), and a distaff Peter Quince and “Mother” Egeus (both by Sarah Fairfax).

Devin further tickles our expectations with the cast’s ethnic and age diversity, which I was gratified to see.  Her equally modern musical choices, swapping motets for Motown ballads, inspired the audience to clap and sing along.

Shakespeare doesn’t come easily to today’s actors — or audiences.  Whipping at lightspeed through such a tangled plot can be perilous for both.  But this troupe has their tongues (and minds) well tuned — they know what they’re saying, and why, and they almost always  take the breath and time to say it.

Lamont Webb (Oberon/Theseus) fills his royal characters with commanding power, and makes his Fairy King a charming but unaware “player” heading for a fall.  Ashley Fuller creates a lush, laughing, mature Titania far too wise to be fooled, who will always win her way to parity.  (She is only overmatched in singing, a gap a coach could help her quickly fill.)

As Puck, Katherine Bowman makes a daring, difficult choice.  Her costume and movement make it clear she is a nubile young woman; but she sing-speaks in a high, nasal voice that recalls the voice-overs used for young boy characters in animated films. This summons Puck the irritating imp, infamous for acts of vandalism.  It also dampens (but does not erase) the sexual energy between her and Oberon.

Robert Walters gives Lysander an energy and verbal clarity that drive the lovers’ scenes.  Arielle Davidsohn’s colloquial Hermia, controlling and combative, reaches through the fourth wall to enlist the audience.  Dorian Serna brings physical comedy to Demetrius (plus a few seconds of unintelligible shouting), while Nicole DeCroix’s Helena suffers genteelly until finally goaded to anger.

Among the rude mechanicals, Quinn Knox stands out.  Of course, Bottom’s is by far the largest part.  But instead of a bumptious egoist, Knox gives us a sincere, intelligent enthusiast, a sort of Elizabethan geek, sweetly unaware he’s overriding his fellows (who do love and admire him) and enduringly baffled by Titania’s love.

There are no small roles.  Emily Cunningham’s timid Snug wins us over at once, then descends into an excruciating — yet irresistibly funny — portrait of abject terror as she faces the royals, helpless and overwhelmed.  I’ve seen (and done) this play often, and have never seen an audience interrupt the Moon’s exit with applause.  (Director Devin earns a special kudo here, for intensifying and symbolizing Snug’s plight by having her do both Lion and Moonshine at once.)

Angelia Weitzman’s simple, evocative set design evokes Chagall’s night skies and wonderfuly signals scene changes with the turn of a column (created by R. Benjamin Warren).  And Devin’s costumes range from plain and frangible (the two suitors) to lavish yet fully workable (Oberon and Titania).

Those who love and revere Shakespeare’s texts as classics — which, of course, they are — may find such radical alteration blasphemous, or at best uncomfortable and unwarranted.  I have relished many  “traditional” stagings of the Bard, from both sides of the apron.  But I don’t want his art to slide out of view due to linguistic and historical drift, or well-intentioned but dead performances.

Shakespeare’s plays were always new and often shocking when written.  So for me, this kind of radical experimenting will always be an important way to engage the master, and keep the play alive.

If you like such playing, you will surely enjoy being a part of Denise Devin’s swift, winged Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare.  Edited and directed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Fridays at 8:30 pm., through August 15.

Tickets:  <www.ZombieJoes.com> or (818) 202-4120.

Disclaimer:  I consider ZJU my home theatre, and count Denise Devin and several other artists in Midsummer Night’s Dream as friends.   I have not participated in one of the ZJU Shakespeare productions.