When the play calls for an enchanted forest, why try to fake it on a stage, when you can take the stage to the forest? That's the solution in the Plays in the Park production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, now at Arcata's Redwood Park.
Down the grassy hill from Arcata Community Forest, tucked in a corner bowered by real redwoods, a few stump-like platforms dot the uneven ground that is strewn with feathery wood shavings to pillow a stage. Bleachers hug its fringes. Behind them is a canvas-covered concession stand with hot drinks, cookies and popcorn. There's a restroom in a lighted building nearby.
The play begins at 7 p.m., in the last clear light of evening. We first meet the nobles: Theseus, a duke of Athens, and his betrothed, Hippolyta, as they discuss their upcoming nuptials. Some productions obscure the fact that Theseus has won her in battle, for she is queen of the Amazons. This production suggests it in an intriguing way, by staging their first conversation during a friendly fencing match.
The other nobles include an irate father and two young couples in a complex love tangle. Then we meet a group of commoners rehearsing a play they hope to perform as part of the duke's wedding celebration. Then the spirit king (Oberon) and fairy queen (Titania) of the forest appear, continuing their ongoing argument that's causing weird weather and unnatural events. Among the other creatures of the night is the magical prankster Puck, also called Robin Goodfellow. All three of these worlds will intersect in a comedy of confused enchantments.
Much of the action, and the beginning of the resolutions, occur in the production's first act. Dominating the second act is the commoners' performance of a "merry and tragical" story about the star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare wrote his midsummer play within a year or two of Romeo and Juliet, and this playlet is its comically absurd version. Children in the audience on opening night led the laughter.
The final scene, in which the magical creatures greet another night and address the audience, takes place near 9:30 p.m., surrounded by the real night's first deep darkness. It is a living midsummer night's dream.
In many ways, this charming production could have been mounted any night in the past four centuries. Some of its features were probably part of the original: fairies played by children, a dog (Elizabethans loved a dog) and actors playing more than one part. In Arcata, Kenneth Wigley is appropriately imperious as both the duke and the spirit king, with comic notes of irony and vexation. Kim Haile creates a real character for the Amazon queen — sensuous, strong and thoughtful — and varies these qualities for the fairy queen.
The most spectacular doubling is accomplished by Chyna Leigh, who changes from a bespeckled commoner to the sprightly Puck before our eyes. Megan Johnson portrays Bottom, the commoner who is transformed into an animal particularly apt for the name, and who becomes the love object of the bewitched fairy queen. Leigh's lithe, mesmerizing Puck and Megan Johnson's rollicking, open-hearted performance as a gender-bent Bottom propel the action, the comedy and the magic.
Yet for all its classic elements, this production is also subtly contemporary, without making a big point of shifting period or place. This is most evident with the thwarted lovers, who dress like North Coast students and make Shakespeare's words seem natural expressions of their feelings. Eva Brena incorporates the hint of a familiar teenage whine in her character's timeless complaints. The other lovers — played by Thsnat Berhe, Ethan Frank and Julia Hjerpe — are spirited and convincing. Ken Klima plays the irate father Egeus with authority.
Especially important to audiences of Shakespeare in an outdoor setting: Almost all of the time, the actors speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard. The play's bright surface is emphasized but Shakespeare's psychologically acute explorations of conscious and unconscious, dream and reality are readily available in the words.
Director Evan Needham makes some apt and inventive theatrical choices for troublesome moments while providing seamless entertainment. Calder Johnson designed scene and lighting; Marissa Menezes the costumes; Chyna Leigh makeup and hair. Performing as fairies are Sydnee Stanton, Emily Martinez, Zoe Osborn and Melina Ledwith. A Midsummer Night's Dream plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. through Aug. 30 in Redwood Park. For more information, visit www. playsinthepark.net or call 822-7091.
This summer Plays in the Park also presents Scheherazade: Legend of the Arabian Nights, a family show by Susan Pargman, a former arts director for the Cross Sound Church who currently runs Drama Kids International. It is directed by Charlie Heinberg, with choreography by Shoshanna, sound and music by Christopher Joe, scenic design by Mark Dupre and Calder Johnson, and costumes by Megan Johnson.
The performers are Alexis Perez, Mia Gonzalez, Chris Joe, Tristan Ford, Caleb Haley, Alyssa Rempel, Jenn Trustem, Christine Johnson, Anaiyah Bird, Cara Pierleoni, Keryl Lopez, Anthony Fleck, Dylan Wilkerson, Mia Rasmussen and Benjamin Smith. Scheherazade is performed (with no admission charge) Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 31.