Open Fist’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Review – Shakespeare in the Antebellum South

The Open Fist Ensemble in MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM - Photo by Frank Ishman
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Move over, Shakespeare. Open Fist has just tweaked your centuries-old tale and brought it up-to-date – sort of. Open Fist’s interpretation of MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM takes place in 1855 (just before the Civil War). Instead of Athens, Greece, the action is set in Athens, Georgia – as Deep South as Shakespeare ever went. It’s a complete redesign of Shakespeare’s classic play – and it works! Serenaded by “Old Black Joe” and other favorites of the time, MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM becomes a clever adaptation of fairies/cum Black slaves – both invisible to the eye of the Southern White plantation owners of the day.

Bryan Bertone, Heather Mitchell, Michael A. Shepperd, Malik Bailey, Erica Mae McNeal, Phillip C. Curry, Monazia Smith, Ash Saunders, Syanne Green, and Azeem Vecchio – Photo by Frank Ishman

The story hasn’t changed, but the perspective has done a 360 degree switch. The play is still a play within a play within a play about a magical night when anything can happen – and does. The fairy kingdom is still reigned over by Oberon (Phillip C. Curry) and Titania (Ash Saunders) – but they’ve morphed into an African-American couple. They’re still peevish about that cute changeling that both hope to call their own, and Oberon still gets Puck (Monazia Smith) to play one of Shakespeare’s favorite tricks on Titania – a few drops of love potion which cause her to fall madly in love with the first being she sees when she awakes. And it just happens to be a human with the head of an ass.

Debba Rotheart, Azeem Vecchio, Syanne Green, Ash Saunders, Erica Mae McNeal, Michael A. Shepperd, and Monazia Smith – Photo by Frank Ishman

Then there is the alternate tale of two couples and their mishaps in the magical forest of dreams. Hermia (Sandra Kate Burck) and Lysander (Dylan Wittrock) are in love – but Hermia’s father has invoked his privilege of naming her husband – who happens to be Demetrius (Devon Armstrong). The desperate couple decide to elope – but Helena (Ann Marie Wilding), who is madly in love with Demetrius, tells him about the elopement – and Demetrius takes off after the hapless couple – followed by the hopelessly love-struck Helena. And there’s Puck again with his pesky love potion. Suddenly both guys are in love with Helena, who is certain that they are playing tricks on her – while Hermia gets the wrong end of the stick.

Ann Marie Wilding, Devon Armstrong, Sandra Kate Burck, and Dylan Wittrock – Photo by Frank Ishman

Finally, there is the third tale of a group of Black slaves who decide to perform a play at the upcoming nuptials of White plantation owners Theseus (Bryan Bertone) and Hippolyta (Heather K. Mitchell). Led by the enthusiastic but bumbling Bottom (Michael A. Shepperd) – who magically ends up with the head of the ass which titillates a certain fairy queen – the group decide on a tragic love story which turns out to be anything but tragic in their awkward hands.

Michael A. Shepperd (foreground), Sandra Kate Burck, Heather Mitchell, Dylan Wittrock, and Bryan Bertone (background) – Photo by Frank Ishman

Skillfully helmed by director/choreographer James Fowler, MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM takes off with a bang. The ensemble cast does a superb job of taking Shakespeare’s classic fantasy and bringing into a future century. Jan Munroe’s scenic design and Stephanie Crothers’ artistry are simply gorgeous and evocative of an elegant and not-so-elegant antebellum South. Mylette Nora’s costumes range from sumptuous to tattered and paint a striking mural of the social class variations in the pre-Civil War South. Gavan Wyrick’s lighting and Nayla Hull’s sound add to the Old South mood with effective punctuation. The striking choreography makes for many a chuckle. Open Fist’s MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM is a memorable and sometimes breathtaking peek at something Shakespeare himself may have conceived – had he lived two or three hundred years later. This is a creative and unusual interpretation of Shakespeare which you shouldn’t miss. If you are a fan of Shakespeare, that’s a given. But even if you are not usually drawn to Shakespeare, this is one production which you will definitely enjoy. It has lots of humor, plot twists and turns, magnificent sets and costuming, and some relevant and timely thoughts about race and the history of slavery.

Erica Mae McNeal, Syanne Green, Malik Bailey, Ash Saunders, Phillip C. Curry, Monazia Smith, Azeem Vecchio, and Michael A. Shepperd – Photo by John Dimitri

MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM runs through August 13, 2022, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 7 p.m. on Sundays. The Atwater Village Theatre is located at 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Tickets are $25 ($15 students, seniors, and veterans). For information and reservations, call 323-882-6912 or go online.


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