When Shakespeare, or someone claiming to be Shakespeare, wrote A Midsummer Night's Dreamcirca 1595, the future state of Louisiana was nothing but a Frenchman-infested swamp, an encephalitis epidemic waiting to happen. We believe contemporary denizens refer to it as the Golden Age of Louisiana. But Loud*R*Mouth Theatre Co. founder/director Laura Marchant saw dramatic potential buried in those reeking bayous, and she has spun the Shakespearean comedy into a stylized and appropriately dreamlike Southern-fried setting.
As befits this up-tempo swamp-stomp adaptation, there's plenty of sweat, steam and soul. But behind the dance numbers (did we mention this was a lively production?) and the ribaldry is a quiet, insistent subtext. Marchant made her changes carefully, teasing out the social consciousness in Shakespeare's play: call it I Have a Midsummer Night's Dream.
Marchant's Dream is set in Athens, Louisiana, during the Reconstruction. As the region rouses itself from a good decade of nightmare, this sleepy little town is just about to nod off. The Royals (lorded over by Jonathan Townley's Duke Theseus, playing on the softer, more temperate side of Huey Long) are white plantation owners, the traveling Mechanicals are a minstrel show, and the Fairies have become African-American plantation sharecroppers.
Marchant doesn't push as hard as she could (the way the program reads, we thought the minstrels would perform in blackface), but her subtler delivery still makes telling points about racism. The power of the Fairies is something much more fragile than the celestial absolute in the original—Marchant reads the boundary between the Fairy world and the mortal world as something closer to segregation than mere separation—and so the dynamic between the Royals and the Fairies is fraught with political implications. Consider this particularly deft touch: whenever the Fairies wish to hide from the humans, they simply sink to the soil and begin tending to the crops; as slaves, they are invisible.
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But this Dream isn't a lecture. It's still as sprightly as it should be, maintaining a tricky balance between substance and silliness. Sometimes, the delivery is a little grating, with braying drawls veering closer to The Dukes of Hazzardthan Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,but the energy never lags.
Michael Pando's Bottom is a ham and a half (or was that an ass and a half?) and a delight to watch, and Danielle Kohne plays jilted Helena with perfectly pouty charm. Jason Rogel's Puck is all sass and slapstick and Vonyse Reeder, in a linchpin role as the Changeling Boy, counterpoints the onstage hijinks with a seductive gravity.
It's a provocative undertaking and a provocative production that's sometimes cautious but still powerful and funny. Maybe the South will rise again—renewed.
A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Edison Theatre, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 972-3593. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through July 7. $15.