On Theater: A marvelously manic 'Midsummer' at SCR

Shakespeare still packs 'em in. There wasn't a vacant seat in sight at the opening of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at South Coast Repertory — and after word gets out, there'll likely be few throughout the run.

The Bard's most visually attractive, not to mention most accessible, comedy is — like other plays in the Shakespearean canon — open to conceptual interpretation. And director Mark Rucker puts his stamp of scintillating showmanship on the SCR production.

At South Coast, there's a futuristic feel to this Elizabethan frolic as Cameron Anderson's awe-inspiring setting illustrates. The Athenian court and the wooded domain of the mischievous fairies are strikingly larger than life, the latter a magnificent playground for the sprites who inject themselves into the travails of four young lovers.

Rucker's company thrives on the punchline to transform this classical comedy into an all-stops-out farcical romp as all four romantics are depantsed by the gleeful fairies and spend most of their woodsy sojourn scampering in their scantiest.

The director is well aware that the issue of conflict between Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies — possession of an abandoned child — is superfluous, and he bears down as lightly as possible on this aspect while concentrating on the wild and crazy antics of the lovers and on the hammy actor affixed with the head of a donkey, to which a magic potion has attracted Titania.

It's all familiar territory, but the joy of this production is in the manner Rucker and his cast approach it. The fairies are all male, a departure from modern form but more faithful to Shakespearean roots. And Puck could be a 16th century Fonzie, garbed in a derby hat and a shorts outfit composed of men's ties.

The acting is universally outstanding, with Susannah Schulman's earthy Titania topping a lengthy list of overachievers. Schulman, clad in as little as the law allows, revels in her commandeering character richly endowed with stealth and spirit in her volatile clashes with Oberon, a majestic Elijah Alexander.

Rob Campbell's Puck is a rebellious sprite, manipulating the actions of the four Athenian lovers with glee and gusto. Of that quartet, Dana Green's Helena is a standout, fending off the amorous advances of both Demetrius and Lysander after they've been touched by Puck's erotic potion.

Kathleen Early as Hermia, left high and dry by the magical machinations, excels in bursts of seething outrage. Both Demetrius (Tobie Windham) and Lysander (Nick Gabriel) stir the passions of romantic rivalry without becoming overly intense.

The half-dozen "mechanicals" — tradesmen rehearsing an abysmal tragedy for presentation at the duke's wedding feast — make off with as much stage as humanly possible, with Patrick Kerr's loquacious weaver Bottom earning highest marks. Hal Landon Jr. scores gleefully as the erstwhile director of the playlet, while William Francis McGuire is hilarious as an oversized "female" object of Bottom's adoration.

John-David Keller's Snug has little to say but much to roar as the actor cast as a lion who's concerned about scaring his audience. Michael Manuel and SCR veteran Richard Doyle complete the coterie of zanies.

The costumes, by Nephelie Andonyadis, are riotous displays of satirical genius. Lap Chi Chu's lighting effects are perfectly chosen, while the choreography of Ken Roht and the original music of Roht and John Ballinger beautifully support the show, occasionally turning Shakespeare's lines into lyrics.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is one of Shakespeare's more popular plays — this is its third time around for SCR — and the current production will delight both purists and newcomers.


A gripping 'All My Sons' revival in Newport

Before Arthur Miller wrote classic plays on the theatrical world such as "Death of A Salesman," "The Crucible" and "A View From the Bridge," he attained his first Broadway success with "All My Sons." This play, written two years after the end of World War II, targeted the conscience of those still nursing their war wounds.

Now enjoying a riveting revival at the Newport Theater Arts Center, "All My Sons" is Miller's most accessible work, and the first in which his recurring themes of ethical responsibility and morality begin to surface. Had he not succeeded with this one, the chances of audiences ever seeing the other three were slight.

"All My Sons" focuses on the family of a middle-American manufacturer whose defective airplane parts may have cost several pilots' lives in wartime. The manufacturer had briefly served prison time but was exonerated, while his partner remains incarcerated.

Further complicating the situation is the manufacturer's son and the partner's daughter, who discover their love for one another even though she was engaged to the son's brother — a pilot missing in action, whose death is unacceptable to his tortured mother.

At Newport, director David Colley has assembled a particularly strong cast for this brutally powerful drama, eliciting some superb performances against the backdrop of Andrew Otero's richly detailed backyard setting.

In the central role of the manufacturer, Vince Campbell strikes a solidly naturalistic tone in the early going, yet falters in the climactic showdown with his son. There is much raw dramatic meat to be consumed here, and Campbell's performance should be amplified in the course of the play's engagement.

As his troubled wife, Toni Beckman hits the proper level of tension, though she resists variation of emotion as the conflict deepens. Like Campbell's interpretation, hers is partially realized and requires only time and familiarization to blossom.

The strongest performance of the night comes from Jonathan Deroko as the surviving son, who learns to his horror of his father's culpability. Deroko charges full bore into the difficult familial faceoff against both his own father and his fiancée's embittered brother.

Likewise, Amber Bonasso as Deroko's love interest delivers a beautifully modulated portrayal, willing to dissolve family loyalty for this developing romance. It's a performance that develops inwardly and gradually manifests itself at the proper moment.

Christopher Utley enriches the emotion-charged situation as the imprisoned man's son, who arrives with unsettling news. His role encompasses both friendship and enmity, and Utley delivers it with seething passion.

Art Hall and Katie Coffey lend fine support as the new couple, a doctor and his wife, who've moved into the jailed man's next-door home. Todd Rew and Kimberly Lewis nicely portray an aggravating pair of neighbors (his appearance with astrological news effectively diffuses a volatile moment), while young Parker Lewis completes the cast as a pesky neighbor kid.

"All My Sons" established Arthur Miller as a promising dramatist in 1947, paving the path to the pantheon of American playwrights. His vision is splendidly served in the production the Newport Theater Arts Center.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays , and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays until Feb. 20

Cost: $28 - $66

Call: (714) 708-5555

If You Go

What: "All My Sons"

Where: Newport Theater Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Sundays until Feb. 20

Cost: $20

Call: (949) 631-0288

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