Midsummer gets a twist, in midwinter

Steamy dreaming
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 18, 2012

GOING STEAMPUNK Portland Players takes Shakespeare into the days of future past.
When I learned that Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was to be staged in frigid early winter, I wondered if the production's angle might be unabashed irony. That turns out to be not exactly the case, but neither is this show, a community theater production of Portland Players, quite its traditional sultry self. In fact, anachronism is interestingly central to director Stacey Koloski's particular retro-futurist styling, which plays with, as she writes, "the inner workings of man-made objects — particularly time and navigational pieces." That's right: Inspired by those fairies' bending of time and space, Koloski and her designers have gone steampunk on this romp.

It's an ace idea, and the show's designers also make it a visually sumptuous one, a world gleaming with gold clockworks, silk, and leather — think a mash-up of Jules Verne, Alice in Wonderland, and the Cramps. The first thing we see, up stage, is a clockface, washed in a low cobalt gel and mid-horizon like a rising orb. And then come the nobles: Hippolyta (Rebecca Brinegar, who is rather sultry) in a fur stole, champagne silk, and glittering black eye makeup; and her Theseus (Jody McColman) with a fat, shiny watch-fob and a fro of black, red, and golden dreds.

Then the warring lovers: Demetrius (Nate Speckman), with a brown metallic trenchcoat and spiky hair, has the love of Egeus (Mark Barrasso, in a monocle) but not his daughter Hermia (Kristen Peters, in plain peasant-Victorian shirt and purple corset). Lysander (John U. Robinson, who with Peters is quite fluent with Shakespeare's verse), in his bright-buttoned admiral's tails and gold-banded bowler, has Hermia's love but not her dad's. And poor Helena (April Singley, who voices her laconic fury tripplingly) loves Demetrius, who spurns her. Interestingly, Lysander and Hermia are both played as the rather more straitlaced lovers, while the dad-sanctioned Demetrius is surly as a steampunk James Dean.

The fairies who wreak havoc on the mortals come more or less in two flavors: Wonderland-brothel — checkered tights, colored wigs, parasols, and coy lingerie — for the fairies of Titania (Alison Guite); and industrial goth — skin-tight black and red — for those of Oberon (Charlie Marenghi). Puck himself (Dan Neuville) dashes about in pale face makeup, a sleeveless black hoodie, and red devil horns, cutting an ominous backlit profile. The sounds of industrial rock or clicking gears sometimes prelude their foibles, and when Puck and Oberon mess around with the love-drug flower on various sleeping eyelids, a line of footlights midstage goes red, as if they're using a retro sci-fi ray-gun instead of some weed called love-in-idleness.

The steampunk motif finds particularly interesting potential in the Rude Mechanicals, of course; the very name of the earnest workman thespians — who are highly entertaining in this show — opens up lots of room for fun around unknowingly primitive contraptions. And the troupe, led by John Schrank's Peter Quince and divertingly dominated by Michael Donovan's excellent, puffily narcissistic Nick Bottom, schleps around some good-looking bits of gear: Francis Flute the bellows-mender (Joe Swenson) has binoculars, aviator-style goggles, and lots of chains; Tom Snout, the tinker (Johnny Speckman), has a cool backpack decked out with a variety of metal objects, including what looks like a golden model of an atom. These were great touches, and I would actually have liked to see more, and more overt, references to each of the men's professions, in light of the steampunk styling.

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