Seattle Shakespeare's unsettling, inventive 'Dream'

Sheila Daniels directs a richly suggestive, lively production of Shakespeare's early comic masterpiece.

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Todd Jefferson Moore as Nick Bottom, with Amy Thone as Titania.

Sheila Daniels directs a richly suggestive, lively production of Shakespeare's early comic masterpiece.

Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, has a relatively brief though pivotal role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After being abducted to Athens by Theseus, she has become his betrothed, and it is their impending nuptials that frame the play’s action.

But in the new production that kicked off Seattle Shakespeare Company’s 21st season this weekend, director Sheila Daniels gives the former warrior maiden a solo spotlight as soon as the lights go down. Hippolyta — played by Qadriyyah Shabazz as a sort of earth mother who’s in touch with a deeper wisdom — chants wordlessly, as if trying to reconnect with the world she knew before being “wooed” by Theseus’ sword.

Even before the play proper begins, Daniels teases out a whole back story that’s richly suggestive. Emphasizing Hippolyta’s origins from an alien culture also sets the stage for the director’s reading of Shakespeare's comedy as a ritual of reconciliation in which love is hardly all you need. Like initiates in a mystery cult, Shakespeare’s couples are seen to navigate their way through an unsettling, at times dangerous ordeal.

Fresh from her win as Outstanding Director in the 2011 Gregory Awards (repeating her victory in that category from the previous year), Daniels is rightly considered a local treasure. She can be counted on to bring a fresh sensibility to her staging of Shakespeare — whether with such familiar fare as her Much Ado for Wooden O last year or the enjoyably illuminating Pericles she directed for Seattle Shakes a few seasons ago. The elements that attract Daniels’ attention in Midsummer also make for a provocative, frequently insightful, lively experience in the theater, even if it’s one that skimps over some major dimensions of the Bard’s early comic masterpiece.

It feels bittersweet to find Daniels working once again with the Intiman space. After being hand-picked by Bart Sher as associate director of Intiman Theatre, she resigned from that post two years ago. The company’s cancellation of its 2011 season meanwhile has freed up the venue for Seattle Shakes to use for two of the season’s four productions. (The other two will be staged in its usual home at the Center House Theatre.) With a new artistic director set to be named early in 2012, following the recent departure of long-term head Stephanie Shine, Seattle Shakes seems to be on the verge of charting a more artistically ambitious course.

Daniels and her design team make the most of this expanded resource, which serves Midsummer’s sharply differentiated spheres especially well. The show’s visuals and sound design reinforce each other to marvelous effect and leave a memorable impression. Andrea Bryn Bush has crafted scenery that’s more an installation than a set. The minimalist, geometric simplicity of the Athenian court in the opening act opens up to reveal itself surrounded by a lush but menacing forest festooned with untamed shapes. Ben Zamora’s lighting plays up its lurking shadows and adds a spectral tint to the moonlit happenings.

The costumes by Jennifer Zeyl underline the play’s collision between utterly different worlds as the Athenians traipse through the forest in light-blue tunics, observed by fairies clad in exotically braided designs. (Though it’s hard to tell what to make of the Monty-Pythonesque silliness of the breastplate sported by Theseus.) Robertson Witmer (who also garnered a Gregory Award last week for outstanding sound design) weaves an atmospheric tapestry of rainforest echoes and chattering into the proceedings, with scherzo-ish interludes to announce the presence of Peter Quince and his amateur theatrical troupe of “rude mechanicals.”

Shakespeare makes a point to represent the manifold varieties of love, whether unrequited or obstructed. Love is a source of confusion as well as bliss, and even after the plot’s entanglements have been worked out, the final act simultaneously spoofs love (in the Pyramus and Thisby skit) even as it prepares for its symbolic triumph in the weddings the couples look forward to celebrating. Daniels additionally turns Lysander into “Lysandra” (eloquently played by Christine Marie Brown), whose love for Hermia (the graceful Allison Strickland) is thus meant to acquire greater urgency as a “forbidden” desire that fuels the unyielding wrath of Hermia’s father, Egeus (Gordon Carpenter).

That twist is less radical than it might seem. In fact, aside from the Elizabethan convention of all-male ensembles, Shakespeare’s text already encompasses allusions to same-sex desire. Oddly, the cuts for this production remove the most striking passage in Helena’s speech to Hermia, which uses suggestively intimate imagery to recount their past friendship (“so we grew together/like to a double cherry”). Aside from a certain poignancy, the explicitly Lesbian reconfiguration doesn’t strike me as adding much in the way of contemporary “relevance.” It seems belabored at times, with the actors distractingly reverting several times to the name Lysander.

What’s more, Shakespeare draws attention to the interchangeability of the two young couples, who after all embody blind desire. Demetrius (Trick Danneker) only needs to be made to redirect his passion to Helena (played with a hilarious blend of jealousy and indignation by Terri Weagant). That’s part of the joke behind Puck’s excuse that “they all look alike” when he tries to explain his bungling with the love charm. It’s a point Daniels herself expands on by playing up the libido that possesses the other couples as well. The forest here becomes a setting for an erotically charged Walpurgisnacht where things really do go bump in the night. (Daniels and Peter Dylan O’Connor co-choreograph the dancing faeries.) The following dawn, as he chances on the younger couples, Theseus (played with an antic youthful lust by Mike Dooly) is suddenly, and comically, overwhelmed with desire for Hippolyta.

Daniels and her design team imbue the forest realm with ambiguous overtones. The faeries whisper and conspire, at times resembling understudies for the witches in Macbeth, while the setting of Titania’s bower brings to mind a mix of Sondheim’s acid-tinged Into the Woods and the creepy surrealism of Tim Burton. What’s missing, amid these extra layers, is the exquisite poetry of Shakespeare’s play. Despite well-choreographed ensemble work, the textures in particular of the fairy world feel too heavily accented — particularly in Chris Ensweiler’s quasi-demonic Puck, though his final speech beautifully captures the spirit of resolution that has been achieved by the end, after passage through this Midsummer night of confusion. The excellent Amy Thone portrays a darker-than-usual Titania in her feud with Oberon (Reginald André Jackson, who balances a frat boy glee in humiliating Titania with palpable concern for the human lovers’ dilemma).

Given the more disturbing picture conjured by this Midsummer, the efforts of the Rude Mechanicals seem to provide even more than the usual dose of comic relief. And the ensemble-within-the-ensemble here is moreover the tightest of the entire cast. Some wonderful individual touches are contributed by Riley Neldam as Thisby, Zoey Cane Belyea as Lion, and Kevin McKeon as the dutiful Prologue.

But Todd Jefferson Moore as Nick Bottom is work of pure comic genius that somehow manages not to detract from his colleagues’ contributions. Of course his role requires multiple transformations: from a hammy Bottom to Titania’s ass-headed object of desire to the tragic lover Pyramus. Moore layers the nooks and crannies of Shakespeare’s dialogue with mannerisms and physical acting that comprise a virtual encyclopedia of comic style yet avoids the cute self-consciousness that can easily mar the part. (For an example of exactly that “cuteness,” check out this clip of the Beatles in the skit from a Shakespeare tribute in 1964.)

And with his elaborate death throes as Pyramus, he and the rest of the amateur troupe manage to defang the threat of love’s madness that underlies the rest of the play. The other lovers, returned to Athens, can gaze at this mirror of their predicament, so recently endured, not with pity and fear but with a spirit of gentle mockery. It’s a sense of dissonance resolved that feels especially earned in this production.

If you go: Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through November 13 at the Intiman Playhouse, 201 Mercer St., 206 733-8222.


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