By Dave Rabjohn
Shakespeare’s legacy runs more deeply than just the genius of his drama and poetry. It is also a palette for future generations of creativity. Driftwood Theatre Group, celebrating their 25th anniversary and creatively piloted by D. Jeremy Smith from its inception, is one of those generations. Driftwood has a long history of bending Shakespeare to new ears and entertaining audiences with bold new insights and stagecraft. A Musical Midsummer Night’s Dream, opening this week at the luxurious Parkwood Estate in Oshawa, is a full example of that boldness.
The heart of this production is music – a staple in all of Shakespeare’s comedies. Composers of the original music are Kevin Fox and Tom Lillington. The array of musical styles represented is astounding – motown, soul, calypso, reggae, doowop, torchsongs, and even some Dean Martin! This sounds like an awkward cacophony, but the music was blended into a comfortable weave that highlighted both story and emotion. Entirely a cappella, the blend was mainly supported by background vocals from the entire cast. The heart of that background, though, were two dedicated vocalists who acted almost like a musical Greek chorus (Athenian pun intended) offering both beautiful singing and vibrant percussive support. Alison Beckwith and Tom Lillington (aforementioned composer) elevated this production.
Song highlights include the scene where Oberon (James Dallas Smith) and Puck (Ahmed Moneka) are plotting mischief. Both with full-throated voices they whip up the audience with both soul and rock – Mr. Smith very much in a Jim Morrison motif. They portray two of the coolest dudes you would love to spend a night with in a bar (but you best watch your wallet.) In the second act, Mr. Moneka’s “Up and Down” song is clever and memorable as he manipulates the lovers with fake voices.
The plot covers three main groups. First the Athenian leadership parallels the Fairy world leadership. Next is the group of four lovers and then the working class “mechanicals.” The four lovers, fearing generational angst, run into the forest of Arden on their way to matrimonial bliss. This is the world of the fairies led by Oberon, Titania and the scheming Puck who manipulate the lovers into various conflicts which they eventually pass off as a dream. Both Lysander (Nathaniel Hanula-James) and Demetrius (Nick Dolan) are in love with Hermia (Marissa Orjalo.) Helena (Kelsi James) is jilted and chases after Demetrius. The four work brilliantly as a mini-troupe posing with ostentation. Some of their best work was physical as they choreographed fight scenes and wild chases. Puck is directed by Oberon to employ a love potion to help the four lovers, but it goes awry with the usual mistaken identities in Shakespeare’s comedies. Puck reverses his errors and all is happy in love and marriage.
A subplot deals with the “mechanicals,” an earthy band of labourers representing the lower class which feeds into Shakespeare’s themes of class distinction. Looking for money and fame, they desperately apply to perform a play for the upper class marriage revels. Completely devoid of talent, the audience laughs harder the more seriously they take themselves. Their final performance make the Three Stooges look like Juilliard graduates. The clever decision to double each actor’s parts feeds into the strong contrast between the more refined Athenian citizens and these naïve clowns. Each actor is well-acquainted with both sides of the fence which pushes them to work hard at the contrast. The result is brilliant. Snug (Marissa Orjalo) has wide, blinking vacant eyes as she totters about – I wouldn’t let her near anyone’s electrical panel. Snout (Nick Dolan) races about as a hunchback unclear of any direction. Kelsi James plays Quince with great misguided leadership and is constantly overcome with emotion. Bottom, played by veteran Steven Burley, leaps into the role with all the awkward gusto you would expect. A highlight is Bottom’s inane indifference with the sultry beckoning of a randy Titania played convincingly by Siobhan Richardson.
Many thoughtful decisions (made by director Smith and probably some of the cast) further enriched the production. The simple multi-level wooden ladders gave a series of levels for the fairies to work their magic from on high. The use of iphones to augment the lovers’ vanity or GPS to infer travelling confusion gave a contemporary twist – why fight the machines? Use them. Sight gags such as Bottom enjoying a chew on Titania’s hat fits with the fun.
The actors bravely soldiered through some spotty microphone difficulties supporting each other with voice and body language. They should also be complemented for the many miles put in as they circled the sprawling Parkwood making entrances from many directions. Stage managers were equally well-travelled.
Puck’s final verses consider “if we have offended” the audience. Clearly not as they have both delighted and astounded. The “Bard’s bus” will be travelling throughout Ontario over the next six weeks and they will be spreading purple love potion everywhere they go.
Ticket information at www.driftwoodtheatre.com