Living the dream

Shakespeare in the Park is a magical, immersive experience

Lysander (Sam Lucas) and Hermia (Michelle Robles Sanchez) frolic through Cedar Grove in Bidwell Park. (Photo by Martin Svec, Black Point Photography)

Midway through the opening-night performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the sun set on a makeshift stage area at the edge of Bidwell Park’s Cedar Grove, the Bard’s words were momentarily drowned out by familiar and very un-Shakespearean sound: Van Halen.

The music grew louder, then quickly ebbed, as a few dozen cyclists passed by on the road on the opposite side of the clearing, some of their bikes decorated with glowing LED lights.

This isn’t mentioned in any way to diminish the quality of the production, or as a warning to potential audience members for the latest local incarnation of Shakespeare in the Park. Quite the contrary, the players didn’t skip a beat or drop a single line, and a few audience members just smiled and quickly forgot about the distraction. Such disruptions are part of the risk, and in this case the beauty, of staging a play in a public place, outside of four walls. If anything, the ride-by only contributed to the overall feeling of the evening—a magical and distinctly Chico experience.

Legacy Stage, the troupe behind the production, couldn’t have chosen a better work for their second foray into the park than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The tale of three groups—the aristocratic Athenians, mysterious fairy folk and working class “Rude Mechanicals”—whose worlds chaotically and hilariously collide one long night was a perfect fit for Cedar Grove. The play starts before sundown and ends well into the dark night.

The staging is minimal and makes use of the offbeat space. The main action takes place in front of an abstract background with only a pair of platforms rising from the stage area. The backstage area is outside the clearing, obscured by foliage and partly visible to the audience. Actors sometimes move through the forest to enter the stage from behind the audience, and fairy folk sometimes stalk among the crowd seated on lawn chairs and blankets.

Heartbroken Helena (Skylar Wondrusch) is surrounded by a couple of musical fairies (Ilana Greenberg and Acie Schiff) in Legacy’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Photo by Martin Svec, Black Point Photography)

Bill Harrington and Marquita Goodman aptly handle dual roles as Theseus and Hippolyta—the Athenian nobles whose wedding the story revolves around—and Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies. Trouble ensues when Oberon sends his right hand fairy Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck (played with giddy fervor by Jackson Taitano) to work some love magic on two young Athenians, Demetrius (Trevor Adams) and Helena (Skylar Wondrusch), while he pulls the same trick on his wife. Puck mucks up the job, of course, leading to trouble for all.

Meanwhile, the Rude Mechanicals plan to stage a play for the wedding, a masterpiece in their own minds that is in fact a dramatic monstrosity about “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” Samantha Shaner shines in the role of Nick Bottom, an inadvertently hilarious blowhard who believes himself to be a great actor and who through much of the play is transformed into a human-donkey hybrid creature. Bottom is one of the Mechanicals players, arguably the most endearing faction, appearing as slightly steampunk in this version.

The action on the stage is enhanced with live music provided by a two-piece band, Alex Piasecki on violin (and occasional guitar) and Laurie Thiede on harp and percussion. The music is a good fit throughout and is most effective when it includes special elements related to what’s happening onstage. For example, Thiede adds in a slide whistle and percussion that sounds like winding gears when the Mechanicals take the stage and tingly chimes when fairies frolic, magic is afoot or when the lines between wakefulness and dreaming are blurred. More music is added by two of the fairies, singing/guitar strumming Acie Schiff and the honey-voiced Ilana Greenberg.

The entire cast does a great job at bringing the Bard’s words to life as Legacy returns Shakespeare to the magical setting of Bidwell Park.

Review:

Legacy Stage presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Through June 11

Cedar Grove, Bidwell Park

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