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Modernity doesn't bode well for the Bard in Shakespeare in the Park's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Puck and Jive

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A Midsummer Night's Dream - PHOTO: RICK MALKIN
  • Photo: Rick Malkin
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream

Two steps forward, one step back. That seems to be the way it goes for Shakespeare in the Park.

Veteran observers of the annual summer extravaganza might concede that the Centennial Park band shell venue isn't necessarily ideal for helping contemporary audiences grapple with the Bard's antique language. Granted, the actors are charged with speaking the speech, "trippingly on the tongue" (Hamlet, Act 3), and the responsibility to communicate is all theirs.

Yet an outdoor venue can be a tough sell for even experienced thespians, and this year's Nashville Shakespeare Festival mounting of A Midsummer Night's Dream simply doesn't cut it — though it would be unfair to lay all of the blame on the surroundings. Especially when the past two years running, NSF achieved successful adaptations of the Bard, including 2012's musicalized reworking of Much Ado About Nothing, and 2011's time-traveling Romeo and Juliet (set in 1894 Chicago).

Yes, Midsummer is one of the master's plays that should lend itself to sweetness and light — it's about lovers and affiliated mirthful complications, not to mention magic and fairies. Theoretically, we don't have to think deep thoughts along the way to grasp the text. But this overlong and sometimes desperately forced gagfest becomes an endurance test well before the Act 1 curtain rings down — leaving Act 2 on the horizon, with its interminable play-within-the-play concerning the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe.

The great contradiction here is that director Denice Hicks seems to have assembled a refreshing mix of outright Nashville newcomers and familiar locals, many of whom — Lauren Ballard, Apolonia Davalos, Andrew Gumm, Derek Whittaker, Bonnie Keen and Nat McIntyre among them — are making their NSF debuts. Yet for all their obvious presence, the players elicit little in the way of genuine laughter. We might be able to accept that reality with equanimity if there were ample measure of poetic charm in its place. Alas, that is not usually the case.

The overview of Midsummer seems to be linked loosely to Music City in the present day. At least that's what Hicks' program note implies. Hence the Nashville skyline forms the wide backdrop for the proceedings, and there's a digital camera in early use — to help signal the modernity, just in case the golf cart that whizzes on and off a couple of times isn't clue enough. Some characters deliver their lines with a Southern accent — but not always. (Keen's character seems to be from New York.) A smoke machine gets into the act, and a live pooch makes an appearance — visuals that can at least distract us from the fading verbal.

There were also noticeable sound issues at last Saturday night's show — technical glitches that have nothing to do with the play's staging, of course. Nevertheless, it could have been seen as part of a larger conspiracy, including lighting that occasionally was as dim as the slapstick.

The show's highlights are merely tangential to the Shakespeare: If only we'd gotten more of Ed Haggard's percussion compositions, which proved energy-plus when the cast let loose in spontaneous-seeming jams that featured the engaging choreography of Tony Speight.

We console ourselves with the notion that where Shakespeare's recent history in the park is concerned, two out of three ain't bad.


Rabbit Hole - PHOTO: CINDY BLANCHARD, CIANN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo: Cindy Blanchard, Ciann Photography
  • Rabbit Hole

Search for meaning

Circle Players opened its fall season last weekend with the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole, a David Lindsay-Abaire work that accessibly tackles serious subject matter and leavens it with dark humor. (Local theatergoers may recall Tennessee Rep's excellent 2009 mounting directed by David Alford.)

The Corbetts, Howie and Becca, are in recovery. Their 4-year-old son, Danny, was killed in a car accident, and they are trying to cope, though not without conflict — and not without the input of Becca's mom and little sister, who announces she's pregnant. Then the high-schooler who killed Danny — when the little boy raced out into the street to retrieve his dog — insists on meeting the parents face to face.

Director Whitney Vaughn, a recent Lipscomb University grad, has enlisted a capable cast, which includes the well-respected Wesley Paine, Lipscomb theater department chair Mike Fernandez and Beth Henderson, who offers a sensitive reading of the key role of Becca. Vaughn also elicits surprisingly affecting performances from younger players Emily Faith and Jonah Jackson.

The production features one noteworthy innovation: a rear-screen-projected video that portrays the Corbetts in happier times, when their son was alive. This device puts a face to the child and provides an interesting visual counterpoint to the palpable family crisis.

The play continues through Aug. 31 at the intimate Black Box Theater on the Lipscomb campus at 3901 Granny White Pike.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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