Tag Archives: Joe Gardner

“The Christians” Has Much to Say About America Under The Donald

Review: The Christians

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Pastor Paul picks up his microphone at an unspecified megachurch to begin his sermon in Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, he tells his congregants – thousands of them, flocking to the Sunday service – that there is a crack in their church. Describing this crack in a four-part sermon, Paul weaves together a 20-year history of the astonishing growth of his church with two epiphanies, both involving conversations with God.

One of these epiphanies results in Paul’s marriage to the beautiful Elizabeth, who sits proudly next to her husband on the mainstage. The other leads to a new perception of God’s goodness and justice, one that rejects the idea of eternal damnation for all people, no matter how virtuous, who have not accepted Jesus as their savior.

So on the same Sunday that Paul can announce that the vast church property has finally been fully paid for, including its “parking lot that you can get lost in,” he also proclaims that his church no longer believes in hell.

Ironically, the crack that Paul described in his sermon was abstract, not previously perceived by anyone else in the assembly, but by the end of the Sunday service, Paul has created a real, tangible crack. Unable to accept the new doctrine, Associate Pastor Joshua walks out after some spirited disputation from the pulpit. The very visible rifts won’t end there.

As a native New Yorker and someone who takes his Bible seriously – at least the Old Testament – this opening scene combines two of the irritating qualities that I discovered in Christians when I emigrated from Gotham. So many of them converse so regularly with God, a most exclusive privilege in the Bible that I was raised on, that they must believe that their God is handling as many simultaneous personal conversations as Ma Bell.

More irritating is the whole spectacle of Christians who “wrestle” with their faith and feel like other people should care. So when I saw the world premiere at the Humana Festival of New Plays in 2014, I often found the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville production tedious and bland. Later that year, adjudicating the 2015 Steinberg Award as a member of the American Theatre Critics Association panel, Hnath’s script appeared in my Inbox.

Although the panel kept Hnath’s drama among the elite scripts into the final voting, for me, it was definitely middle of the pack among the 27 works we considered. Did I miss something when I read the script? Or perhaps did Actor’s Theatre of Louisville miss something when they brought it to life?

I was hoping so when I entered Booth Playhouse, for Steve Umberger and his Playworks Group were bringing The Christians to town in its local premiere with a cast that evoked Umberger’s years as artistic director of Charlotte Repertory Theatre. In his return to Charlotte, Umberger was also backed by a design team associated with his greatest directorial triumph, the 1995 production of Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2.

From the outset, Umberger’s answer to both of my questions was a resounding yes. The Playworks church choir – “the bigger the better,” Hnath urges in his playscript – is far more energetic and spirited in Charlotte than it was in Louisville, led by Dareion Malone from an electric keyboard and populated with singers who can rock the house when they solo. Set design by Joe Gardner is slicker, more dynamic than the Humana production, with twin projection screens above the action cuing the congregation on the lyrics of the songs and the key points of Pastor Paul’s sermon.

Brian Robinson decisively exorcises blandness from this production as soon as he launches into Pastor Paul’s sermon, slick and confident with the mic and moderately charismatic so that he never becomes a Joel Osteen caricature. There is enough self-confidence and self-absorption to qualify as hubris, yet Pastor Paul’s geniality and approachability keep him far short of Oedipal arrogance. Paul tells Joshua he can leave his church, not that he must. Big difference, and Robinson gets it.

But it’s Chandler McIntyre’s performance as Sister Elizabeth, arguably McIntyre’s best ever, that crystallizes what the Louisville version missed. Embedded in Paul’s narrative about how he met his future wife on an airplane is a theme that is more relevant to us all today than whether hell exists. Here he passes along a note via a helpful stewardess, quoted from an NYU English prof that serves as the play’s epigraph: “I feel an uncontrollable urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance barrier insurmountable.”

It’s a pretty classy pickup line – until it becomes something totally unexpected in a bedroom scene unlike any that you’ve ever seen before. All through this drama, everybody speaks into a microphone, and there are no scenery shifts. Those conditions are only mildly incongruous when we see Elder Jay, representing the church’s governing board, coming into Paul’s office, picking up a microphone, and discussing the repercussions of Joshua’s defection.

Husband and wife picking up mics in the privacy of their bedroom takes the incongruity into comical territory. Sister Elizabeth starts off this climactic scene much as she has seemed before, a loyal, decorous, and diffident pastor’s wife. As Paul airs his suspicions and she reviews his breaches in respect and trust, we watch the quiet pulpit ornament grow into a whirlwind that could intimidate Job, let alone Paul.

Soon afterwards the question scribbled more than 20 years earlier on an airplane is reprised, but we see a different slant from Hnath on the insurmountable distance Paul has spoken of. In a way that hadn’t jumped at me off the pages of the playwright’s script nor the Louisville production, I can now see that Hnath is asking this: Can we work, pray, or even live together anymore after we’ve recognized that we fundamentally disagree?

It’s a very American question, transcending theology. Our nation rests on two very contradictory pillars – the narrow “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” dogmatism of the first Puritan settlers and the “liberty and justice for all” openness of the Deists who framed our Constitution. We probably thought the insurmountable distance between these outlooks had been permanently bridged long ago. What Humana and I didn’t see in 2014 was the election of 2016. A serious crack in our society has re-emerged.

We get fine performances from the rest of the cast that further humanize and texturize their disagreements. As Joshua, Jonavan Adams fumbles a bit in his disputation with his mentor – as he should, since the new doctrine has caught him off-guard and he’s explicitly “wrestling” with his mentor’s sermon. But Adams helps us focus on how much he would like to believe there isn’t a hell, for he vividly envisions his mom there.

April C. Turner emerges from the choir as Jenny, a troubled congregant whose questioning of Pastor Paul is even more powerful than Joshua’s – because she’s had the time to write down her thoughts and gather reactions from around the community in the wake of the schism. To a lesser extent than Sister Elizabeth, Turner grows more formidable right before our eyes as Jenny becomes more comfortable behind the microphone in the spotlight. There’s also a gentle hint that she becomes progressively more irritated and emboldened when Pastor Paul seems to be patronizing the seriousness of her concerns.

Before and during this huge turning point, Graham Smith makes his presence felt as Elder Jay. This isn’t the most towering performance we’ve seen from Smith – he was, after all, Roy Cohn, in Angels back in ’95 – but it ranks among his most rusticated. And the man can still make an exit. His private conversation with Pastor Paul, which had been most notable for me in getting across Jay’s practical business anxieties, registered more deeply this time around, for they also discuss Associate Pastor Joshua and bring out more about him than we knew.

Joshua not only harbors that “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” viewpoint, he’s been aggressively talking up hellfire on the streets of town. So Paul may actually have had Joshua in mind when he perceived a crack in his church, and his defection may not have been as sudden and unanticipated as it first appeared. Pastor P may be as cunning and calculating as Jenny suspects.

Needless to say, I found The Christians to be a far more substantial piece the third time around – and it’s not surprising to learn that Umberger first encountered it in the aftermath of the 2016 election. The revitalized impact of a production like this reminds us how important a professional theatre company can be in the cultural life of a city. Response from the audience during the post-performance talkback confirmed that a satisfying cross-section of people at Booth Playhouse can instantly get what The Christians is saying to us now.

We had that extra intellectual jolt in our community far more often during the years that Charlotte Rep became a prominent member League of Regional Theatres (LORT) under Umberger’s leadership. Umberger could possibly build his current Playworks enterprise to similar prominence, if The Christians draws the support it deserves.

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Angels Provocateur Returns as Conciliator

Preview: The Christians

By Perry Tannenbaum

There’s plenty of history between Steve Umberger and the Queen City, stretching back to 1976 when he founded the Actor’s Contemporary Ensemble. That company became Charlotte Repertory Theatre, which gave us an epic production of Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2, in 1996. On the wings of Umberger’s supreme achievement as Rep’s artistic director came a firestorm of local homophobia and negative national publicity that strafed the cultural landscape of this city like nothing before or since.

Reverberations from that controversy kept rumbling for years afterward, resulting in the eventual ouster of Umberger in 2002, and the self-immolation of the company he founded by a rogue board of directors in 2005. In an acrimonious parting shot in the announcement closing Rep down, board chairman William Parmelee charged that Charlotte had little interest in supporting professional theatre.

Well, Umberger is back, and he isn’t here to stir up any new controversies or settle old scores. He is here to remind us that differences of opinion don’t need to be acrimonious – and maybe, just maybe to prove that Parmelee was dead wrong.

Picking a drama that can achieve those aims wasn’t simple, but Umberger and his PlayWorks Group chose Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, a work that premiered in 2014 at the prestigious Humana Festival in Louisville and went on to win acclaim in Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, and off-Broadway. Hnath made a bigger New York splash earlier this year on Broadway when A Doll’s House, Part 2, his sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s famed feminist drama, picked up eight Tony Award nominations.

Umberger honed in on Hnath before the playwright’s Broadway triumph – at exactly the right moment.

“I first read it right after the election,” Umberger recalls, “when everyone was starting to find everyone else’s viewpoint contemptible. I wondered if there was a play out there that would truly represent everyone fairly and let them tell their side of it in a way that would be heard. Then I found The Christians.”

Set in a megachurch, The Christians fits Charlotte like a glove. After building up his church from a storefront acorn to a mighty oak, Pastor Paul delivers a progressive sermon that proposes to take his church and all who belong to it on a spiritual hairpin turn. Because in a recent conversation with God, God told Paul that there is no hell.

Quite a bombshell for the associate pastor whom Paul has mentored, for church elders who have backed and supported Paul for 20 years, and for his wife Elizabeth, who was blindsided by her husband’s bold new doctrine. So are many members of the congregation, which now numbers in the thousands. They have believed strongly in Pastor Paul, but everyone isn’t ready to be redirected like sheep into strange new beliefs.

It’s as if a Republican were elected President and told his party that they were mean.

Only there’s a bond between these people as they wrestle with their faith amid the fallout from Paul’s sermon. Spiritually, how far is Associate Pastor Joshua willing to bend and still serve his mentor’s church in good conscience? Administratively, how can Elder Jay keep supporting his church’s founder if there are massive defections from the flock? And personally, how can Elizabeth forgive Paul for not consulting her on a move that could have such a dramatic impact on his livelihood and their family?

Yes, there is mutual love and respect between all of these Christians. Yet the issues are substantial, and Paul, the visionary leader, may be the most selfish and inconsiderate in the group.

Umberger gets to reunite with some of the same suspects who worked with him decades ago on Angels – set designer Joe Gardner, lighting guru Eric Windbreaker, and actor Graham Smith, who made Roy Cohen such a demonic firebrand. Two other Rep vets are in the cast, playing the lead couple. Chandler McIntyre last hooked up Umberger and Rep in Wit (2001), and Brian Robinson, playing Pastor Paul, is a two-time CL Actor of the Year who played key roles in three CL Shows of the Year: Malice Aforethought (1992) and Falsettos (1993) for Rep, and Take Me Out (2004) with Actor’s Theatre.

More recently – and more to the point – Robinson gave a fine account of Father Flynn in another religious cliffhanger, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, playing opposite Umberger’s wife, actress Rebecca Koon. That North Carolina Stage Company actually toured Charlotte with that production in 2008 after Robinson had moved to Atlanta.

“When I lived and worked as an actor here from 1988 until 2008, the city was teeming with homegrown theatre. It’s certainly not all gone, but it is certainly greatly diminished,” says Robinson. “Rebecca and I had done Doubt together, and our friendship became quite close. In August 2016, I was exploring the idea of creating some theatre. Steve was the one of the first people I thought of when considering with whom I would want to partner. I asked Rebecca what he was up to. Her response was, ‘I think he’s in a similar place. You should call him.’ And now here we are, one year later, about to unveil the fruits of this first collaboration.”

Burnt by the lackluster support from the CharMeck Arts & Science Council after the Angels flap when he led the Rep, Umberger is relying on a more conservative, self-sufficient financial model with PlayWorks Group.

“Even though [The Christians] is a single production, it’s set up so that it could actually pay for itself, if enough people come,” Umberger explains. “That could also conceivably be expanded to multiple plays in some sort of season that looks like a company. It doesn’t require massive corporate sponsorship or grant funding or big giving. It only takes enough people buying a ticket.”

Umberger is also tapping into homegrown talent he hasn’t worked with before in mounting his new venture. He saw Jonavan Adams in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom this past spring and has tapped him to play the schismatic Pastor Joshua. Strangely enough, Umberger had never met playwright/actress/director April C. Turner until Christians auditions, though her C.O.T.O.: Chocolate on the Outside drew a Loaf nomination for Best Drama back in 1997.

Turner turns up as Jenn, the truth-seeking congregant whose questions wreak havoc among Paul’s flock. Just as convinced as Hnath must have been in 2014 that Hitler was synonymous with evil, Jenn asks if Der Fuhrer is earmarked for hell.

“Steve is a pro,” says Turner of her first Umberger experience. “He is passionate about his work, and he owns his voice as a director. He’s a gentle director, yet firm in his vision. We spend a lot of time asking and answering questions about ‘what’s really going on’ and digging into the details of the needs of each character.”

Adams, who came to understand who Umberger was only after he was cast as Joshua, also chimes in with a glowing review.

“It’s surpassed my expectations in every way,” says Adams of the rehearsal process. “This play calls for a uniquely gifted director to be able to explore its nuanced complexity.”

But we still need to wonder whether Parmelee was right more than 12 years ago – whether Charlotte really is fertile ground for professional-grade homegrown theatre. Since Rep died in 2005, Charlotte hasn’t had an Actor’s Equity company that was part of LORT, the top-tier League of Regional Theatres.

It’s sad, says Robinson: “The citizens of Charlotte deserve and need a thriving professional theatre scene that is locally produced.”

Will we turn out to help make it happen? This may be our last best chance.

With a Gifted Cabaret Cast, Gardner Triumphs in His Davidson College Farewell

Review: Cabaret

By Perry Tannenbaum

Few musicals are more fascinating, malleable, or ominous than John Kander and Fred Ebb’s tuneful Cabaret with its masterful book by Joe Masteroff, currently being produced by Davidson College Theatre Department. Lingering despair and defeat, holdovers from World War I, hover over Berlin and Germany as we make our first visit to the decadent Kit Kat Klub. In the opening “Wilkommen,” the emcee assures us that this is a place of forgetting. But the more we get to know Berlin, largely through the eyes of aspiring American novelist Clifford Bradshaw, we realize that what’s forgotten – escaped and avoided, really – are the present and the future, as the teetering Weimar Republic becomes forgotten in the wave of insanity and horror that will be Nazi Germany. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” sing the waiters and Nazi youth, not really grasping what Adolph Hitler is or the havoc he will wreak.

Yet of course, the followers of the Hitler cult are the least sympathetic of the victims here, though the fate of these dupes is suddenly more relevant after America’s disastrous 2016 election. So many of the characters drawn from the 1939 Berlin Stories of Christopher Isherwood – and altered or added to by Masteroff – charm us, tug at our sympathies, or gradually fuel our disgust and outrage. And so many are fated to be pitiful victims. Nearly all of those we care about most enjoy the intensifying benefits of Kander and Ebb’s chameleonic songwriting. In his valedictory effort after 43 distinguished years in the Davidson College Theatre Department, director Joe Gardner had plenty to sift through. Not only are Cliff, the Emcee, and Kit Kat chanteuse Sally Bowles all engaging creations, they’ve all undergone significant changes since the original 1966 Broadway premiere. Most notably, there was the all-about-Sally film version in 1972, which added two showstoppers for Liza Minnelli, “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time.” Alterations in the 1998 and 2014 Broadway revivals starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee were nearly as extensive. Now the Emcee, as a homosexual, emerged fully as a victim of the oncoming regime at the end of the show. Along the way, one of the backups for the Emcee’s risqué “Two Ladies” was changed from a Kit Kat Girl to Bobby, and Cliff became more overtly bisexual. As for Sally, the blithe Londoner became more neurotic, something of a cokehead.

Gardner’s mix-and-match version of Cabaret seems to be mostly retro, stripping the Minnelli showstoppers from the songlist and reverting to two female backups on “Two Ladies.” Cliff gave me the impression that he wished to keep his past homoerotic liaisons in Paris behind him, resisting his opportunities to cheat on Sally after she moved in with him. Where Gardner surprised me most, however, was on the emphasis this production put on the story outside the Kit Kat Klub at Fräulein Schneider’s boarding home. The doomed relationship between the warm and welcoming Schneider and her shy admirer, Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz, figured to be an inevitable weak spot for a college production. But Theo Ebarb managed to look remarkably middle-aged for a college junior as Schultz, not at all ethnically inappropriate, and junior Hannah Thigpen, though not as convincingly transformed by wig and makeup designer Clara Abernathy, was the best actress on the Duke Family Performance Hall stage on opening night.

Schneider doesn’t have the best songs for her solos, but Abernathy made a very dignified case for “What Would You Do” late in Act II when she called off her engagement to Schultz, and she nearly resuscitated the moribund “So What?” when we first met her. In between, her duets with Ebarb were both charming, a blushing humor gently squeezed from the “Pineapple Song” and a folksy German flavor infused into the waltzing “Married.” Suddenly, I could realize that Schneider was every bit as important as Sally in the original 1966 concept until we reached the title song, the most decisive closure in the story. That outcome was far from inevitable when I first beheld sophomore Ashley Behnke and her bare-shouldered pizzazz in Sally’s “Don’t Tell Mama.” A little of that aura wore off when she and her mink coat invaded Cliff’s apartment and Sally became the seductive femme fatale. There were breaks in concentration in Sally’s serene “Perfectly Marvelous” duet with Cliff, and I didn’t always hear Behnke’s words clearly, spoken or sung. Vocally, Behnke was stronger and more consistent in the climactic “Cabaret,” but just a little bit lost: I didn’t sense a firm grasp of who Sally was behind that song – or a clear take on the dramatic decisions she had just made.

Both of the male leads astonished me. With an amazingly smooth and polished voice, only slightly strained at the top of his range, junior Spencer Ballantyne was delightfully befuddled and principled as Cliff, making a perfectly marvelous impression in his only solo, “Don’t Go.” But the show was dominated in numerous ways by senior Robert Kopf as the Emcee, nearly flawless in his cynicism, his swagger, and his corruption. More than anyone else, the Emcee personifies the “end of the world” about which Cliff will eventually write. But in this production, Kopf had other assignments. From the time the show began, it was primarily Kopf who bridged the gap between the audience and the Duke stage, frequently walking across the ramps that crossed the orchestra pit toward us and inviting intimacy in a hall that normally feels remote from the stage action.

There are also two stairways in Anita J. Tripathi’s set design, one winding up to the occasional perch for a couple of musicians and the other leading straight up to an overpass with a guardrail. On or behind these steps, Kopf will often lurk sardonically as action outside the Klub unfolds – or he might appear even more ominously prowling across the overpass, one of lighting designer Greg Thorn’s spotlights reserved especially for him. Vocally, Kopf is most naughty when he sings “Two Ladies,” most roguish when he sings “Wilkommen,” and most devastating when he delivers the anti-Semitic freight of “If You Could See Her.” Yet Kopf’s stage presence is so powerful that his most chilling moments might have come when he didn’t say or sing a word, dropping the fateful brick into Schultz’s shop or making his final exit.

Technical polish was never a worry. Except for a bump here or a ring there, the sound system at the Duke was completely tamed, and while the orchestra could have been reined in at times to let lyrics through, Jacque Culpepper’s musical direction was outstanding. Tempos for the singers and musicians were never compromised. Once Gardner and his cast had jumped the hurdle of making the oldsters and their swastika-crossed love believable, Cabaret could be quite compellingly viewed with untinted glasses. With all the Hitler Youth undertones already in the script, the collegians I saw in Davidson often became an asset I’d never anticipated. Maybe senior Dakota Morlan needed more mileage on her for the whorish Fräulein Kost, or maybe not; and maybe the urbane Ernst Ludwig was more chilling when he revealed his Nazi armband because sophomore Jacob Haythorn was playing him. In some ways, the horror was enlarged.

Jane Shall Have Jill in DC’s Hip-Hop “Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Theater Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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By Perry Tannenbaum

If you have the notion that America’s liberal arts colleges are hidebound guardians of the past, mired in fossilizing traditions, you may wish to check out Davidson College’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unorthodox thinking was already obvious when I looked at the cover of the playbill. Instead of the Grecian colonnades or laurel wreathes you might expect for a lyrical Shakespearean comedy that mostly transpires within 25 miles of Athens, the cameo portrait of Fairy Queen Titania and the bewitched Bottom is done in comic strip style. All of the basic info – title, playwright, director, dates – is set in that impossibly perfect hand-lettering that worshipers of Superman and Batman grew up with. Furthermore, entering Duke Family Performance Hall, I was already tipped off to the fact that director Ann Marie Costa would be infusing the Bard’s text with plenty of hip-hop rhythms and dance, thanks to the ministrations of beatmaker Mighty DJ DR and spoken word artists Boris “Bluz” Rogers and Carlos Robson.

Given the problematical acoustics of the Duke, I was fairly anxious about what I might need to contend with in the style – and the beat – of this production concept. But there was more. In the opening scene, when Egeus petitions the heroic Duke Theseus in hopes that he will force his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius, the groom he intends for her, there were a couple of radical switches. Hermia’s father was nowhere to be found, replaced by Egeia, a heartless mother. Perhaps more shocking, Hermia’s true love, Lysander, had also disappeared, replaced by Lydia. If Joe Gardner’s elegantly simple set design and Martha Making’s contemporary costumes weren’t enough, Lydia’s plan to elope with Hermia and marry her assured me that we weren’t in ancient Athens anymore.

I would have been dizzy with disorientation if these alterations had been delivered with hip-hop embroidering, but the lovers’ couplets and the mechanicals’ prosaic rehearsal scene afterwards were plainly spoken. As so often happens, the uniqueness of a Midsummer Night’s Dream production becomes manifest when we leave Athens behind and plunge into the nearby woods. Back in 1987, when NC Shakespeare was still alive and touring, Hermia and Lysander traipsed into the forest carrying their own Samsonite luggage. In 2003, deposed Charlotte Repertory Theatre founder Steve Umberger found refuge at Theatre Charlotte, bringing Cirque du Soleil acrobat Karl Baumann with him – to go where no Puck had gone before. Costa says in her director’s notes that she was inspired by a recent visit to New York City, where she saw spontaneous performances by street musicians, beatmakers, and break dancers in the city’s public parks. The nocturnal woods is exactly the right place for disorientation to be encouraged.

So as soon as we first saw Puck conversing with the First Fairy, we got a steady flow of hip-hop movement, choreographed Emily Hunter – with plenty of urban attitude – accompanying the hip-hop reaffirmations that most of the fairy dialogue is rhymed. Tatiana Pless was so vivacious as the Fairy that I presumed she was Puck for a few moments, but not to worry, Pless got more play and multiple costume changes as Mustardseed and Moonshine. Graham Marema was quite engaging as Puck after her comparatively subdued arrival, but it was Colin Bye’s bravura exploits as Puck’s master, King Oberon, that enabled the whole hip-hop concept to click. His tall frame topped with a pom knit hat, Bye became a living breathing testimonial to the efficacy of YouTube hip-hop tutorials. He rarely moved from one spot onstage to another without a lithe moonwalking glide – nearly on point, increasing the impact of his lanky height. The sensation Bye made as Oberon was only enhanced by the starchy, stiff, and proper impression he made in his other role as Theseus in the opening scene.dsc_0758

While discord between Hermia and her mom unsettles Athens, there is parallel discord in the fairy kingdom, where the proud Queen Titania is denying custody of an adorable kidnapped boy – and conjugal visitations! – to King Oberon. To bring peace to both kingdoms, Oberon must teach Titania a lesson and restore Demetrius to his previous fiancée, Helena. Oberon dispatches Puck to retrieve a faraway flower whose juice can be made into a love potion that can be applied to a sleeper’s eyes. When the sleeper awakes, he or she will fall in love with the first person or animal that comes into sight. Oberon himself applies the potion to Titania, but fortunately, he deputizes Puck to find Demetrius and apply that same potion so that he’ll become enamored with Helena again when he awakes. Half of the fun we experience in the woods results from Puck messing up and applying the potion to Lydia instead of Demetrius. The other half comes from what Puck gets right, transforming the incorrigible Nick Bottom into a man with a donkey’s head in the middle of the mechanicals’ inept rehearsal. That’s who – or what – Titania sees when she first awakes.

After seeing Midsummer numerous times before, I found Kanise Thompson a little less shrewish than most Titanias because of the boogie in her movement and the hip-hop delights of her fairy entourage. Arrayed in the funky garments of the hip-hop culture, this entourage combined to make the queen’s bedtime the most regal event of the evening. Thompson did reappear later in the evening as Hippolyta, whose nuptials with Theseus were another regal event, but her best moments came when she heaped love on the repellent Bottom and when she sensuously reconciled with Oberon. Although he couldn’t compete with the most commanding Bottoms that I’ve seen, Sam Giberga had some bodacious moments as Nick, particularly when he was vaunting his versatility as an actor and getting vamped by the queen. Louder braying, please!dsc_1063

The whole hip-hop concept went so well for me that acclimating to the gender and sexuality alterations presented more of a challenge. Sarah Kostoryz as Helena may have more reason to be offended by Lydia’s advances, but the text offers no guidance, and she reacted as if a Lysander were still pursuing her. I’ve also seen more vicious taunting of her shorter rival Hermia when their antipathy heats up. As Hermia, Izem Ustun could give the most conventional performance among the lovers, for it made no difference who her admirers were when both of them abandoned her. Uztun swam bravely against the handicap of her relative conventionality, no more sensitive to Hermia’s shortness than Kostoryz’s provocations warranted.

Soft-pedaling her altered sexuality, Blaire Ebert was a very courtly and principled Lydia, and she tore after Demetrius fearlessly. Now when Lydia’s conflict with Demetrius escalated from verbal to physical, I could perceive some difficulties in the audience. As Lydia and Demetrius rolled over one another on the forest floor, there seemed to be a mixture of shocked silence, nervous laughter, and redoubled laughter from various sections of the house. There was no avoiding it: the lesbian Lydia’s attack on the straight Demetrius often had the look of lovemaking as they lingered on the floor. Similar to Ebert, Ed Pritchard portrayed Demetrius as if nothing had changed, a problematical proposition when your fiancée turns out to be gay or bisexual, but the text offers no more guidance to our Demetrius than it does for Helena or Lydia. I would have expected all four of the lovers – especially during the taunting and fighting – to have more fun with the newly hatched absurdities.

The cuts that Costa applied to the script may have shortened the mortals’ time onstage more than the fairies’, or maybe the extra juice from the hip-hop idiom just made the fairies more exciting and accessible. I’m sure that I’ve seen Midsummer productions where the mechanicals don’t perform their Bergamask after their travesty of a tragedy, and I’ve also seen productions where the fairy king and queen don’t return. Returning both of these to the final scene added to the sense of revelry, merriment, and magic. When the last huge exits went to King Oberon and Queen Titania instead of the three newly wedded Athenian couples, the sudden hush when Puck was left all alone onstage was all the more poignant and dramatic. After such an unusual, energetic staging, Merema had no difficulty at all in coaxing us to give her our hands.