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A Midsummer Night’s Dream
stars
UNCW Cultural Arts Building
Feb. 21st-24th, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. $5-$12 • www.uncw.edu/theatre

94918938.jpgThe UNCW Theatre Department presents Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” at the Cultural Arts Building in the dead of winter. That is the first clue that the production is not going to be typical. Honestly, as a reviewer and audience member, I am genuinely conflicted by department chair Andy Belser’s take on “Midsummer.” And I’d like to follow that up by iterating: It’s a compliment to the director. The point of art is to elicit response from the audience. To remain blasé about the show is not achieving that goal. To leave one contemplating it for days is an accomplishment.

I am not of the school of thought that Shakespeare must be performed in Elizabethan dress with strict settings, so I was curiously excited by Belser’s transformation into a modernized, technologically enhanced experience. He succeeds in making this run of “Midsummer” unlike any I’ve seen.

To begin with, it’s incredibly dark, which is not an unreasonable interpretation. Certainly, the emotions that mortals or young lovers (Kelly Mis, Nicholas Reed, Luke Robbins and Haley Alber) grapple with are painful, frightening and terror-inducing. Who hasn’t felt those emotions when confronting love unrequited—or sometimes more upsetting, love requited? One of the most primal emotional experiences we have as people moves actions and passions which sometimes make no sense and can be terrifying at best. So, Belser’s depiction of red in the lighting and projection depict the idea of anger nicely. Throw sex into the mix, and it gets more complicated, more frightening. This is not innocent young love Belser seeks to show us but a very physically aroused, earthy desire. The mortals cannot keep their hands off each other in the production, and the demi-gods Theseus (Gary T. Moore) and Hippolyta (Katie Wesolowski) personify “oh, get a room” with constant petting and PDA. Belser clearly shows interest in exploring darker affections of the human mind—one capable of condemning a daughter to death for not marrying the man chosen for her, as Hermia’s family problems illustrate.

Speaking of illustration, the production concept relies heavily on choreography and music. Belser brought in Karola Luttringhaus of Alban Elved Dance Company to direct the movement of the show. It’s high concept, without a doubt. It must have taken months to plan not only the cuts and adaptations to the script but also the visual effects and staging to achieve the vision. It is so complex and filled with technical enhancements and special effects, I have started to think of it as “Avatar-meets-Shakespeare. “I would love to have been a fly on the wall during production meetings.

“Midsummer” relies heavily on dance—not dance as one tends to think of musical theatre, perfectly directed between song and accompanying twirls and lifts, but with abstract and modern action on stage. The movements visually illustrate relationships and changes as a tool to advocate emotional connection when it otherwise is not coming through. Lots of music is employed—not Elizabethan flutes and drums but contemporary sounds from Fatboy Slim and Prince. The show opens with Ella Fitzgerald’s “Embraceable You,” presented by Ashley Bruton and Eddie Waters, the two fairies of Oberon and Titania’s court. Puck, played by Eddie Ledford, is a Charro-esque ‘70s lounge singer instead of the usual mischievous ADHD hyperactive child many have come to expect from this role. I like Ledford’s interpretation.

Among other liberties taken with the script, at one point having achieved his objective with changing Bottom (Jake Seward) into an ass, Ledford lets go with a “fuck, yeah!”—showcasing dialogue again indicative of modern times. The audience completely agrees with his sentiments. Though the Rude Mechanicals (Richard Smith, Jake Seward, Ashley Black, Wilson Meredith, Sloan Friedman and John Aldridge) remain an audience favorite because of their great comic relief, Ledford’s performance brings the most emotional connection. He has, by far, managed to develop the most rounded, three-dimensional character. Oddly enough, he is also the most appealing and empathetic.

Laughter is a bridge between people and therefore between performer and audience. People instinctively like others who can make them feel happy. Really, outside of The Mechanicals and Ledford, there is little which audiences ally with; sure, the mortals show us through choreography what is happening but they lack empathy. Titania’s scenes with Bottom are funny, but her battle with Oberon doesn’t leave us wanting them to either reconcile or destroy each other. It’s surface portrayal.

When I attend a play put on by Opera House or City Stage, I expect to see accomplished performers practicing their craft. When I attend a show at UNCW, I expect to see performers learning their craft. In other words, it’s an educational environment. Without question the design and production side of UNCW’s “Midsummer” demonstrates apt faculty leadership and ongoing student growth. The sheer number of complex light and sound cues make it clear of a strong stage manager. It also provides a powerful opportunity for the students to work with high-concept visions and push new boundaries.

Yet, from a performance standpoint, what didn’t come through are the students’ work on their craft; the essential element of the emotional connection between characters. Fundamentally, theatre exists to shine a light on our stories as human beings, to bring us deeper insight into the human experience. How can four people so moved with emotion—as to throw away their lives and run off together—only project anger? That’s not the driving force at play here. The concept certainly addresses many issues which impact and affect feelings and relationships in modern society. Still, all of the challenges of modern communication, memory and understanding are superfluous to the underlying bond which buoys such experiences.

Like “Avatar,” I think the production team was so excited by their concept they lost sight of the story. As a piece of experimental theatre that combines multiple disciplines and presents a different vision of a well-loved classic, it is definitely worth seeing. It will leave audiences contemplating it for days—a success by any of art’s standards in my book.

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