In only three short years, Debbie Litch, Theatre Memphis' feisty executive producer, appears to have reversed the storied East Memphis theater's ruinous and seemingly unstoppable slide. The leaky roof has been patched, the tattered carpets have been replaced, threadbare seats have been recovered, and paint has been liberally applied. One only needs to look at the huge modern wood and glass sconces that now line the walls of the Lohrey Stage to understand that Theatre Memphis is back and better than ever.
Well, the building is better than ever, anyway. Although production quality has improved and Theatre Memphis has staged a handful of superlative shows, productions at the newly restored playhouse have shown a decided lack of consistency. Director Stephen Hancock's interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is currently running on the Lohrey Stage, is a prime example. Although the set and costume design rival anything one might find on any professional stage, the cast is woefully uneven, with actors who simply cannot handle the material cast in several key roles.
The completeness of Hancock's dreamscape vision for A Midsummer Night's Dream is extraordinary. The soundtrack, which seems to include every great song written about the moon in the 20th century, should be on sale in the lobby. The sets are beautifully realized. Hancock is almost completely successful in reinventing Shakespeare's famous romp in the woods by turning it into a swanky post-modern sex farce, filled with slapstick and slamming doors. He's encouraged his set and costume designers to reach out and conjure real magic. But Hancock has made grave errors in both his casting and his staging. His extensive cutting and rewording of what is already the bard's most accessible comedy boggles the mind.
Purists would certainly disagree (as purists will), but there's no crime in cutting Shakespeare deeply or altering a word here and there to help modern audiences through a minefield of dead idioms. But Hancock's edit is condescending and intrusive for more Shakespear-ienced observers who can recite passages of the text line by line. Why change a richly descriptive word like "wanton" (still in current use) into "woman," which is blander and less musical without the added benefit of being synonymous? Why change the colorful adjective "bully" to "jolly," and then only half the time? Why do anything more than what absolutely needs to be done?
For all of its beauty, there are numerous problems with the design. To avoid sight-line issues, the play is best observed from the upper level. The garishly conceived fairy costumes marry absurd period designs, ridiculous glitter-rock makeup, and clownish, hideously colored antenna-adorned fright wigs. Nausea is assured.
The mask design for Bottom's ass head — a defining element in any production of A Midsummer Night's Dream — is beautifully realized. At a distance it looks like the rat cage placed on Winston Smith's face in the film version of 1984, but up close, it is very nice.
The play's climactic play-within-a play ends not in riotous laughter but in silence, followed by the sound of Ashley Bugg Brown as Egea (one of the show's true highlights) noisily sucking the last of her drink through a straw. It's one of this Dream's funniest moments, and certainly its most spontaneous. It's also telling that for all the famous words, it took a tacked-on gag to bring Shakespeare's funniest scene to life.
Brown's antics are joy to watch, as is the comical wooing of Marques Brown who, as Duke Theseus, handcuffs himself to his bride. Melissa Harkness and Jade Hobbs, likewise, display superb comic skills as Hermia and Helena, two Athenian virgins with man trouble. But no matter how much momentum and comic potential these actors build, all action comes grinding to a halt whenever Ian Hunter (Demetrius) somnambulates through his lines.
Hunter isn't the only actor sleepwalking through his role. Most of the fairies move and speak like the heavily medicated, and Jacob Rickert's Puck is no exception.
Puck, a knavish prankster sprite who delights in creating chaos, is one of those roles every actor longs to play. The joy he takes in making mischief is one of A Midsummer Night's Dream's greatest delights. But Rickert mouths his lines and shuffles through his stage directions with the energy of a tree sloth.
It's good that Theatre Memphis is back and showing the potential to produce visionary — even world class — work. But all the packaging is useless if the performers can't get the job done.