If you’re lucky enough to ever have the opportunity to tour the rebuilt Globe Theatre along London’s River Thames, the most common question you’ll hear is, “What would Shakespeare have thought?” It was the same question asked by an enthusiastic audience member during Friday evening’s performance of Fairy Worlds! at the Desert Botanical Gardens. “What would Shakespeare have thought?”
Fairy Worlds is an abridged, ninety minute production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed under the valley night sky, and even though the occasional purist might shift uncomfortably in his or her seat at the thought of editing the work or even changing the title, the end result by the Southwest Shakespeare Company is a brisk and highly entertaining version of the comedy that invites you into its colorful, enchanting world and charms from the very beginning. Even before the play has begun, the outdoors atmosphere with its surrounding, lighted trees that fade from color to color, all add to the carnivalesque feeling and expectation that something quite magical is about to take place.
Shakespeare’s comedy is a complicated piece of work consisting of not one but four plots that interweave throughout the evening. Traditionally, when the play begins, Theseus, Duke of Athens is about to marry the Amazon queen, Hippolyta, a woman he has conquered in battle. In this production, during the opening moments, we get to see a well choreographed version of that battle as atmospheric smoke billows across the stage while co-composers Quetzal Guerrero and Alberto Lopez’s percussive-heavy music under Joshua Martin’s music direction pounds over the speakers, a sound reminiscent of Nina Rota’s score echoing Fellini Satyricon. Once things settle and the smoke fades away, the triumphant duke creates a sense of light heartedness and expectation as he discusses the oncoming wedding with his new bride-to-be. It has always been a sense of fascination that Queen Hippolyta, despite having been defeated and made to marry the duke, was never written as an altogether unwilling bride. The queen is presented as being slightly haughty in her exchange with the duke, which is not always the case in other productions, but here it makes perfect sense having just witnessed her defeat in battle.
What you’ll remember the most, however, are not so much the subtleties of Shakespeare’s writing, or his clever wordplay, it’s the overall, enchanting design of the forest, the fairy world of the title, a magical world ruled by Oberon, the king of the fairies, and Titania, his truly beautiful queen. Taking a lead from the classic 1971 production from Peter Brook, director Jared Sakren casts the same actors to play both Theseus and Oberon and Hippolyta and Titania. Randy Messersmith makes a commanding presence as both male characters, and while Tracy Liz Miller succeeds in convincing us as to why Theseus would want to immediately marry her, it’s as the dreamy and lovesick Titania where Tracy truly shines. When the queen casts a spell over Bottom (an effectively comical Ted Barton) in the woods, forcing him to remain, basically keeping him captive and trapped in her company, there’s hardly a man in the audience who would not willingly swap positions with the character of the weaver, if only for a few minutes.
Throughout the production you’ll enjoy circus artists, fire-breathers, and Michael J. Eddy’s superb lighting design that makes terrific use of not only the stage but the surrounding Botanical Gardens area, all adding to the feeling of being right there, in the middle of the enchanted forest among the fairies as they go about their mischievous business creating spells and love potions on the unsuspecting humans.
Due to a Friday evening technical difficulty, the show was halted for just a few minutes while technicians behind the scenes scrambled to rectify what it was that was causing a problem with the sound. Ordinarily, something like this would have spoiled the rhythm of the play, yet somehow in this setting, under the evening stars and in such an automatically magical atmosphere, the forced intermission actually added to the fun and flavor of a live performance. The cast of forest wood nymphs and fairies stranded on stage in the middle of a dance without sound proceeded to entertain the audience with some impromptu Michael Jackson moves, causing a rousing round of applause, all adding to the fun of enjoying a live, outdoor production.
Which leads us back to the question, “What would Shakespeare have thought?” Taking into consideration that England’s greatest playwright wrote his plays first and foremost for entertainment, occasionally to order, and always to be enjoyed under a seasonal night sky that encouraged cheers and jeers from its live audience, here’s my guess: He would have loved it.
Above photos by Joe Abbruscato.
For times, tickets and dates, CLICK HERE for the official Southwest Shakespeare Company website.