Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare (Bakersfield College 2021)

The very first Shakespeare play Amanda and I attended together was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, if my memory serves. This wasn’t our first official date, mind you - that wasn’t until a week or so later, when we saw A Comedy of Errors together at the Stone Soup theater. Since then, we have seen this particular play a lot of times, in a lot of places. Most recently would have been at The Empty Space, in 2013. Amazingly, my 13 year old remembers it, despite being all of 5 at the time. Although I had started blogging by then, I wasn’t writing about live theater, so this is my first actual post about the play. 


There is a reason that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s comedies. I mean, what’s not to like? Fairies running amok, lovers who wish to defy their parents and marry, love triangles, terrible amateur acting, and a guy with a donkey’s head - it’s all good. And so many great lines too. I think our older children started off with this play as well - only my youngest ended up starting with more serious fare: Pericles and the Scottish play. 


After over a year off due to Covid, we are back to having live theater here in Bakersfield, with various approaches to safety. In the case of Bakersfield College, the combination of relatively small audiences and a large outdoor theater, meant that they did not have to check vaccination status, but did do the exposure screening. So far, outdoor events in town have not tended to spread the virus particularly, so this was a pretty low risk event. (Also, all those we sat close to were vaccinated.) 


One of the reasons we really wanted to see this play is that our longtime young friend Marina Gradowitz was in it, in the role of Hermia. We first met the Gradowitzes when Marina and my eldest were infants, and spent a decade and a half together in our former church. It feels weird that both of them are now adults, going to college and working and being the sort of annoyingly responsible grown ups that we were at that age. Just kidding, Marina. We are all ridiculously proud of you. 

 Lysander (Connor Deming) and Hermia (Marina Gradowitz)

Maybe it was the fact that all of the pent-up energy of the last year and a half needed an outlet; maybe it was that this is a particularly talented group of actors. But whatever it was, the play was electric. From start to finish, there was a incredible energy, tension, and humor. Not bad for opening night, when you expected some nerves, but got intensity instead. 


As usual for BC, the cast was a mix of students, faculty, and other older local thespians. I think this works well given the size of the community - the best of the students also participate in local groups, and in some cases have returned later to teach and act here in Bakersfield. (The Empty Space has several plays directed by people Amanda and I used to watch when they were students at BC.) 


There were some fascinating artistic ideas in this production. While it is usual to see a female play the part of Puck, they also gender-swapped Oberon (but not Titania.) Cody Ganger, long a fixture of local theater (and the best Kate from Taming of the Shrew I have ever seen) handled the part of Oberon and gave him (her?) a goofy twist as a co-conspirator with Puck. (Justine Luevano) Scott Deaton sang the opening number with his 12 string, then went on to perform as Theseus. What I thought was interesting was that in the opening scene, he hesitated with words and lines, as he tried to figure out a way around the cruel laws of the land. At first, I wondered if he was just having a brain fart, but as it went on, the hesitations were clearly at the point where Theseus the character would be essentially ad-libbing his responses to the furious Egeus. Once he was out of the woods, so to speak, he clearly had his lines well in hand, so the hesitation as an artistic choice made sense. 

 Puck (Justine Luevano) and Oberon (Cody Ganger) conspiring

The quartet of lovers: Demetrius (T. J. Sandoval), Lysander (Connor Deming), Helena (Lucy Brown), and Hermia (Marina Gradowitz), were all excellent. I may be prejudiced, but I thought that Marina was particularly outstanding. As the smallest actor (if she breaks 80 pounds, I’d be surprised), she was perfectly cast for “though she be but little, she is fierce!” She was more physical than I had seen her, flinging herself into Lysander’s arms, fighting with the other three with a feral ferocity, and projecting her voice to fill the acoustically challenging venue. Also impressive to me is that she avoided a common student mistake of letting the lines speed up with volume and intensity. (Hey, as a violinist, I know our own tendency to do this!) She kept the pace perfectly even as Hermia grew more frustrated and furious and heartbroken. The others were good too, definitely. But I am partial to Marina’s performance. 

 Ah, the pain of unrequited love...
Helena (Lucy Brown) trying to win Demetrius (T. J. Sandoval)

I also want to mention the detailed choreography of the fights. They were more physical than most I have seen, but with detail to the moves, and clearly well rehearsed. It wasn’t a dance, exactly, but it felt like a dance. 


Perhaps the most amazing bit of choreography to me was the way that the actors handled all the magic. Puck and Oberon didn’t just dribble a little juice in the eyes. No, they “manipulated” the mortals from a distance with their hands. It is hard to explain what this was like, but maybe the idea that they were somehow pulling invisible strings to move the humans around is the best way to put it. Their hand gestures were reflected perfectly in the unnatural movements of the actors playing the humans. This, despite the fact that in many cases, the “manipulated” actors did not have the fairies in line of sight. The work it must have taken to coordinate this so perfectly must have been significant. Whatever the case, it looked like special effects. So, whoever thought that up, and all those who brought it off so well - that was amazing. 


The amateur acting troupe was brilliantly cast and choreographed. Quince was played by retired BC theater professor Randy Messick. (Amanda took a few classes from him back in the day, and he has been involved with theater even after retirement. Oh, and he also became an Anglican priest as a second career…) I’m not sure if he is recovering from an injury or surgery, or has just lost the use of his legs, but he played the part entirely in a wheelchair. Whatever the case, he had a designated “Quince’s Assistant” who moved the chair for him most of the time - he had a moment where he was “on his own” and had to dramatically keep from rolling down the sloped stage. This too was pretty amazingly done. Rather than park the chair in one place, it was constantly moving, perhaps even more than the other characters. Combined with Messick’s superb physical acting with face and hands, Quince came off as frenetic and in a constant state of anxiety. (Just as a note here, Messick has a fantastic acting range, from Richard III to Sir Andrew to Friar Lawrence. No matter how big or small the part, he is delightful to watch.) 


The crucial character of Nick Bottom was handled by Karl Wade, who I have noted as compelling in Three Sisters and as the lunatic in the production of Every Good Boy Deserves Favorwith the Bakersfield Symphony. He was hilarious as Bottom. The rest of the troupe were hilarious as well, from Dusty Steele as Flute (and thus Thisbe) to my friend Melissa Whitten as Starveling (and thus Moon) to Kevin Ganger (Cody’s husband) as the lion to Cory Geurtsen (one of my favorite local actors) as the wall. Speaking of that, because the poor wall had to hold a rock in each hand, she couldn’t use fingers for the chink. So…she spread her legs. I mean, in case all of the sexual innuendo wasn’t hilarious enough. This whole bawdy section was played with so much hilarity that a few lines were lost to the roaring laughter of the audience. (Did I just use "hilarious" four times in a paragraph? Sorry. But did I mention it was hilarious?)

The "Rude Mechanicals": (l-r) Alexander Singh(?), Randy Messick, Melissa Whitten, Cory Geurtsen, Dusty Steele, Christian Ortega(?), Kevin Ganger, and the recently suicidal Nick Bottom as Pyramus (Karl Wade)

One of the best moments of this farcical epilogue was the introduction that Quince makes to the play. 


If we offend, it is with our goodwill

That, you should think: we come not to offend

But with goodwill. To show our simple skill,

That is the true beginning of our end.

Consider then we come but in despite.

We do not come as minding to content you,

Our true intent is. All for your delight

We are not here. That you should here repent you

The actors are at hand. And by their show

You shall know all that you are like to know.


In this case, Snout holds giant cue posters which Quince “reads.” Except that Snout has a bad case of the nerves, and turns them WAY too fast, and drops them, and it gets to be a mess. Messick reads the cards super fast, eventually compressing words together into a jumbled mess - but it sounds exactly as if he were desperately trying to keep up. While hopelessly wringing his hands and looking increasingly distressed. It was a brilliant touch to a delightful production. 


All of us had a great time seeing this one, including my 10 year old. By any standards, it was a good one, but for a (mostly) student one, it was top notch. Bakersfield College and its faculty and students should be proud of themselves. 


This play runs two more dates this weekend, October 7 and 9. BC is also doing the Scottish play, on the 6th and 8th. Locals, go see at least one of these! You will not be disappointed.


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