Monday, October 03, 2005

Southwest Shakespeare offers sweet 'Dream' in its new Mesa home
by Kyle Lawson
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 2, 2005 12:00 AM

If a thing is worth doing, do it well.

After years of performing in high schools and outdoor amphitheaters, Southwest Shakespeare Company moved into its new home at the Mesa Arts Center on Thursday.

It has pulled out the stops with its first production, A Midsummer Night's Dream, a work the company has done before, but never quite so nicely. The sets of Patrick Walsh and Jared Sakren, the costumes of Lois K. Myers and Gail Wolfenden-Steib and the lighting of Paul Black achieve a level of quality that would do any troupe proud. Sakren's direction is inventive, particularly in the slapstick scenes, and there are fine performances from an ensemble that includes some of the Valley's leading players.

That would be reason enough to see this Dream, but the real attraction is the play itself. After all these hundreds of years, it remains a delightful piece of comic construction. The interaction between fairies and humans, the misunderstandings of a quartet of young lovers and the play-within-the-play performed by a group of "rude mechanicals" still tickle an audience's funny bone. The poetry? Well, this is Shakespeare. He set the standard then, he sets it still.

Sakren has taken the material and built a production that sometimes teeters on the edge of farce but never slips out of hand. With the help of his designers, he constantly reminds the audience that it's viewing a magical dream, yet caters to Shakespeare's belief that such dreams are real - momentary escapes into another world from which the sleeper awakes wiser for the experience.

The director, who learned his classics at the feet of John Houseman and the legendary Acting Company, is at his best in the comic moments. When Puck inadvertently sends the young lovers' plans awry, Sakren orchestrates the ensuing scenes into non-stop hilarity, with funny bits of business tumbling over themselves. Later, when the rustics present their play, there are so many goofy moments that the audience is almost constantly convulsed.

The cast is up to the challenge. Bob Sorenson is in rare form as Bottom, a weaver who ends up as the donkey toy of Titania, the fairy queen, when Puck turns him into an ass. He's just as marvelous as Pyramus in the rustics' play, carrying on a daffy love affair with Thisbe (played by the equally adept scene-stealer Peter Good).

Maren Maclean's Helena, one of the lovers, is reminiscent of Carole Lombard, blending drop-dead looks with knock-about silliness. If she is the best of the quartet, it's not because Kyle Sorrell, Jason Barth and Jennifer Banda don't give her a run for the title. Among them, they put the merry in this Dream's merry-making.

If these folks are the cream, the rest of the ensemble is hardly low-fat. At the final bow, there was a deserved ovation. The actors lend a freshness to the play that makes it seem as if their characters are contemporaries, not residents of ancient Greece. That's as it should be. Shakespeare wrote to engage the audiences of his day. Modern revivals should do no less.

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