Plein-air Shakespeare

That’s the way to see the Bard.

Nearing the end of their 20th anniversary, dual-show run, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has engineered a presentation that rivals the clockwork precision of a comedic double act.

Despite Saturday’s record setting heat temperatures, the evening featured a cool breeze and was gratifyingly devoid of bugs. And while the open amphitheater-esque setting of Southmoreland Park (across Oak Street from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) is dissimilar to the Globe Theatre’s thatched roof theatrical heritage (across the Thames River from St. Paul’s Cathedral), the sardine-packed crowds out for a good time tie the 16th century to the 21st.

The company alternated performances of Antony and Cleopatra (the first production for the festival) with possibly Will’s best-loved comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And no wonder – the performance was uproarious, easily transcending any sort of Elizabethan-language snobbery, the acting as broad as a barn to effectively reach the audience members perched on the park’s upper retaining wall.

Funniest of the evening was undoubtedly Matthew Rapport as Nick Bottom, the buffoonish weaver/wannabe actor, puffed up in his own importance. The tradesmen’s delightfully incompetent acting is reminiscent of what Shakespeare probably put up with time and again with his travelling troupe and the men relished their parts. I was also taken with the patient defeatism of downtrodden director Peter Quince, played by Bruce Roach. The play-within-the-play is one of the my favorite moments in theater, period.

Rapport’s elaborate, hammy grief in the eventual playing of The lamentable comedy and cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe – a wildly gestured “Alack, alack, alack” – has me smiling yet. That and the dog (who accompanied the actor playing “moonshine” via lantern light) what kept barking back stage. You know what they say…

Before all this, though, and one of the most known plot devices, Bottom is transformed with an ass’s head by the mischievous Puck, played by the athletic Jacques Roy. Roy played the versatile role as a sort of gymnastic feat, soaring on stage by rope, to follow with a performance of leaping, cartwheels, back flips, handstands and more, along with considerable panting and barely contained bouncing, practically barking his lines – a faery Fox Terrier, perhaps?  I heard someone behind me mutter “show-off” and I have to agree, impressive as the performance was.

Also impressive physically and comically were the performances of the Athenian maidens Hermia (Emily Peterson) and Helena (Andrea Guertsen). When the play begins, Hermia is loved by the two male leads; after Oberon and Puck’s meddling Helena is the object of their infatuation, which confuses and alarms both girls. The scene of their cat fight, as they trade rancorous slurs, was a highlight of the play and nets some of Shakespeare’s most quotable insults. When the rejected and confused Hermia left the stage, the audience emitted a sympathetic “awe” at her slouch-shouldered despondency.

Another fun moment was at the beginning of Act II, when Oberon, played by the magisterial John Rensenhouse (Antony on alternate nights), ambled on stage munching from a bag of kettle korn. I don’t know why he did it, but I appreciate the whimsy nonetheless.

The sound effects – meant to evoke the Faeries’ various magickings – were disappointing, sounding like lo-fi Garage Band clips, amateurish and distracting. What I’d like to see would be some really old-timey radio sound engineering, the likes that Tom Keith brought to A Prairie Home Companion, as opposed to somebody pushing buttons in a sound booth in the back. Or maybe a Vader effect, in which just the gesture and the writhing serve the purpose.

Also distracting was the gratuitous shirtlessness of Demetrius. I get that the youths have been running helter-skelter through unyielding brambles in the dark of the wood; the women had sleeves ripped off and their skirts shredded. But you lost your jacket, waistcoat and your shirt, yet you aren’t dirty? Pull the other one.

Other than being annoyed by that aspect of the costuming, I was smitten with the production’s opulence. The Athenians were in Georgian garb (I would have worn Helena’s dress in a heartbeat, especially the cute petal-sleeved jacket from Act I) and the Faeries dressed in fanciful pink and turquoise sparkly splendor, a riff off the Indian prince changeling child.

I can’t think of any better way to have spent a Saturday evening in July, to tell you the truth. I think that my friend’s comment as we packed up after the show summed up the experience: “It was awesome, except that the smell of funnel cake didn’t last throughout the whole show.”

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