Welcome to Club Midsummer.
There are lots of striking moments in the fun and ferocious Fresno State production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but one of my favorites comes near the end of the first half of the show when the Athenian lovers and fairies collide on stage for a chaotic encounter that transforms into a big dance party.
Lights pulse. Music pounds. Mismatched characters engage in overly frisky dance moves that would make Clovis Unified school administrators’ heads explode. In a series of “freezes,” with lights momentarily darkened and dialogue spoken, we lurch forward through a merry interlude of laughs and lechery.
Contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare are so common that it’s actually more remarkable these days when someone stages a traditional version. But not all contemporary adaptations are created equal. Sometimes they’re half-hearted: A director picks a time period or flashy setting, asks his or her designers to come up with appropriate costumes and scenic design, and then proceeds with a show whose tone and direction could just well have done in Elizabethan tights.
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Not Kathleen McKinley, who crafts a modern vibe for this “Midsummer” that is both cheeky and memorable.
It’s the funniest and rowdiest version of the play I’ve ever seen produced.
There are strong performances in the roles most of us know and love, from Titania, the fairy queen (an excellent Kelsey Deroian) and Nick Bottom (a smoothly hilarious Tyler Branco) to the impish Puck (Dillon Morgan, in fine form).
But there’s strong direction, too. One reason for my enthusiasm: I like how hard McKinley and her actors worked to make each character distinctive, particularly among the two befuddled groups that find themselves caught in the middle of the forest: the four lovers, who famously fall prey to a misguided love potion and end up with the hots for the wrong person; and the Rude Mechanicals, the notoriously incompetent band of amateur actors trying to rehearse a play.
Take Helena, for example, deftly portrayed with a nebbish glee by Reshma Meister. She’s the poor sop in the love quartet – those four upscale youths who flee to the forest to get away from meddling parents – who doesn’t have anyone pining for her. Tromping through the forest in unappealing duds (Elizabeth Payne’s costumes are terrific, ranging from sumptuous, preppy, dumpy, nerdy and sexy to just plain silly), wearing a backpack clanging with an REI-shopping-spree’s worth of camping pots and pans, she gets laughs just from a well-directed thumbs-up toward the audience.
Or Peter Quince, the “director” of the play-within-the-play, played by Jacob Williams, who has so much fun mincing and torpedoing his way through the role that he actually received applause on opening night just for walking offstage. (McKinley’s concept for the amateur actors is inspired by iconic college faculty types, and it’s quite amusing.)
Throughout, there are small standout moments for a number of actors, from Kevin Eldridge’s amusing portrayal as a Wall – again, Clovis school administrators, close your eyes, or better yet, just leave – to Nolan Henson’s fight as Lysander for his not-so-true love.
The action is brisk, though the very funny play-within-a-play – which starts off hilariously – does drag a bit, perhaps one of those moments when the material could have been tightened.
McKinley’s contemporary premise for the production extends to the fairies. She presents them as “Twilight”-like creatures enraptured with the fairy queen and king, Oberon (Jacob Sherwood). Interestingly, the vampire theme isn’t as interesting as much of the rest of the show. The fairies are fun to watch, however, as they slink about, seductive and coy, tormenting the mortals. The choreography, by Brandon Yang, with additional tango choreography by Ruth Griffin, is an essential part of the show.
Which brings me back to the club scene: a moment of exhilaration and beauty. Thanks to Liz Waldman’s deft and sophisticated lighting design (she even incorporates pulsing pinpricks of green, laser-like lights) and sound design, along with all those freaky dance moves, it’s the type of place that feels like it would have a couple of big bouncers and a long line to get in.
I don’t think Fresno State has bouncers, but you never know about the line: This “Midsummer” deserves to be a hot ticket.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6, and Saturday, Nov. 7
- Fresno State Woods Theatre
- www.fresnostate.edu/theatrearts, 559-278-2216
- $17, $15 seniors, $10 students