Quick Bright Things: Shakespeare's "Dream" Is Lush But Loud in Germantown

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Oh for a muse of fire. Or any muse, really. I'm so conflicted about the Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that I'm nearly at a loss for words. And I sincerely wonder if the audience that clamored to their feet to give this sweet but sexless Dream a standing ovation carried that palpable excitement all the way home or if the enchantment lifted somewhere along the way, leaving the poor souls to wonder if they'd mistakenly fallen for an ass. Because, for all of the detail and beautifully spoken words, there were several things about this show that, to borrow a phrase, were sent before their time into this breathing world scarce half made up. And I couldn't help but wonder if most members of the attractive and richly costumed cast were accustomed to performing outside or in houses much larger than Germantown's intimate Poplar Pike Playhouse. That at least might explain why so many of the players shouted their lines, pronouncing each word as though Shakespeare's phonics were more important than any attendant meaning.

TSC's Dream, directed by company founder Dan McCleary, is in many ways the most complete production of a Shakespeare play I've seen in ages. From the songs to the dances to the intricate Greek-inspired costumes that could have been lifted from the set of a ’50s-era Sinbad flick, every detail has been considered. Susanna Perry Gilmore's original, serpentine compositions perfectly complement the material and having all her gorgeous music played live by musicians as gifted as the incomparable Dr. Roy Brewer is a real boon. But I'd exchange every perfect note and swath of purple fabric for actors with shorter resumes that actually talk and listen to each other.

Shakespeare's language only seems daunting. The greatest interpreters of his work know this and understand that the genius of his text lies not in its poetic grandeur but in its human scale. In Hamlet's speech to the players, Shakespeare's greatest acting coach advises against wild gesticulation saying, “Do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus.” He compares those who merely pronounce their words to the town crier and makes a powerful case for intelligence and discretion. “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” he says. “With this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature... to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature.”

When it comes to overstepping the modesty of nature, sawing the air, and mere pronunciation Johnny Lee Davenport (Oberon/Theseus) and Charlotte Schioler (Titania/Hypolita) are among the worst offenders. Davenport, a veteran of stage and screen whose Shakespearian performances have previously earned good to glowing reviews, shouts so monotonously it's tempting to compare his dreadlocked fairy king to a Samuel L. Jackson impersonator. Schioler's Danish accent and proclivity for indicative gesture makes for a Titania that's more exotic than intelligible.

Among the four lovers only Vanessa Morosco's Helena manages to be anything more than an excuse for clever fight choreography. While those around her recite (or proclaim in the case of Brittany Morgan's Hermia), Morosco takes a less mannered approach and finds awkward humor and unexpected depth in Shakespeare's gangly heroine. What's more remarkable is that Morosco, easily the most engaging performer in the company, manages all this in spite of being saddled with some humiliating slapstick.

Although it's not accurate, it's common to play up the naughty entendres in Helena's begging of Demetrius “to be used as you use your dog?” But this is A Midsummer Night's Dream not an Iggy Pop song and it's hard to watch Morosco's bottom fly up in the air and chase Demetrius about the stage like the needle on a compass without wondering if the man she loves has rump sex with his spaniel. It's an unfortunate bit that's more degrading than it is funny.

The “rude mechanicals” — a collection of Shakespeare's silliest and most sympathetic clowns — are so casual and understated compared to the rest of the TSC cast they almost seem to be in a different play, and Tony Molina's interpretation of Nick Bottom is a simple joy. Well, at least until his expressive face is covered by a massive stuffed donkey's head. Only Darius Wallace, one of Memphis' most consistently impressive actors, seems out of place here as Snug the Joiner. His feigned and badly executed stammer makes a potentially sympathetic acting choice seem like he's milking a speech impediment for laughs.

In a play hinging on love and sex, only Caley Milliken's Peasblossom and Slade Kyle's Puck manage to generate any heat and that's mostly the residual effect of beautiful, well-trained bodies working together in tandem. Kyle's Puck — taking his cues directly from the text — is a convincing shape-shifter who can bay like Spartan hounds and fly without ever leaving the stage.

Dan McCleary doesn't wear his influences lightly. Before the lights come up on his Dream — the first show of his fledgling company's second season — he informs the audiences that this production has been influenced and inspired by the writings of psychologist Carl Jung, the music of composer Bela Bartok, and the dreamy pre-surrealist paintings of Marc Chagall. The speech should come with a spoiler alert because sure enough, the play's psycho-sexual themes are made overt (if seldom sexy), the wonderful music echos Bartok's Hungarian folk dances (without ever losing sight of Michalis Patrino's “Misirlou”), and the set's saturated jewel tones seem to have been plucked directly from one of Chagall's circus paintings. So little is left to wonder at.

There's virtue in McCleary's slavishly literal staging of a text that's too often turned into a proving ground for a director's personal interpretive vision. Nevertheless, the shortage of credible relationships in a play that's all about relationships makes everything else appear excessive.

For a complete schedule and ticket information click here.

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