Dallas — We know very little about origins of perhaps Shakespeare’s most beloved and (over?)performed play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are no records of when it was written or performed or for what occasion. Was it perhaps for a fancy wedding or for the Queen’s fancy? The lack of knowledge adds to the comedy’s mystery.
What we do know is that this spectacle of music, magic, mirth, and dance cannot help but delight audiences of all ages and inspire artists to explore their visions in its fairy framework. The play’s varied source materials (hints of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Golden Ass by Apuleius, and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) allow for many interpretations. From modern settings, to trapezes in a blank room, to enormous productions with ballet dancers using the music of Mendelssohn, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been the grist for many creative mills.
The Junior Players’ production, co-directed by Valerie Hauss-Smith and Anastasia Muñoz, fits into this tradition of open interpretation by using the Indian movie style known as Bollywood as their inspiration to provide a feast for the eyes and ears.
Junior Players, the oldest non-profit children’s theater organization in Dallas, is celebrating its 60th anniversary of dramatic outreach, education, and commitment to diverse populations. This production, which uses young adults ranging in age from 15 to 19, is produced in collaboration with Shakespeare Dallas and closes out the summer season with a boisterous Bollywood bang.
For 10 stellar years Hauss-Smith has served as a director for JP, and Dream marks her last production for the organization. Muñoz, herself a JP product, has choreographed and assistant-directed for the last eight years and this show signals her co-directing debut and taking the helm as Hauss-Smith steps down.
In their directors’ notes they explain that “Bollywood movies are musicals that merge different genres such as comedy, melodrama, romance and action.” Sounds like a perfect description of what Shakespeare is doing in his play.
One might think that using such young actors would be problematic for interpreting and presenting the Bard; however, the folks at JP (along with Plano’s Fun House Theatre & FIlm) have been proving for years that there is something new and insightful that they can bring to such advanced material. Dream in particular, with its focus on infatuation, whimsy, escape from authority, and identity lends itself to thespians on the brink of adulthood.
Kudos to Hauss-Smith and Muñoz for infusing even more charm and broad comedy elements into a play that is already brimming with them. They do this with a crack ensemble, fantastic designers, and a Bollywood aesthetic that is not just window-dressing. Kristina Vanderhout takes the bones of the recently closed Romeo and Juliet set and adds splashes of color, Hindu design elements, and vines and flowers to transform Athens and the fairy wood into a magical India. Bruce R. Coleman’s costumes are simply breathtaking. He uses traditional Indian garb, with bright purples and pinks dominating, and his costume for Hippolyta the Amazon Queen (a commanding Bethany LaMastus) of buckskins and war paint is inspired.
Donna Murray’s choreography is fun and exciting given the many intricate dance numbers, tumbling, and weight sharing. And Marco Salinas and Vikas Adam’s sound design matches the movement and felling of Bollywood music.
There is not a weak link in the cast (one of the beauties of this production), and the standouts are many. Maison Kelly’s Hermia may be “little” but she is fierce. Carson Wright as Demetrius shows some impressive comedic chops—reminding of a young John Ritter. A shining Eliza Palter plays Helena as a put-upon wallflower teenager with hilarious spunk.
The Fairy King and Queen, Oberon (Zachary Valdez) and Titania (Audrey Keen) smolder with exotic enchantment, and their fairy attendants are delightful, especially Matthew Nguyen as the amazingly acrobatic Dance Captain.
The Rude Mechanicals all deliver, but Rodolfo Lopez as Flute and Dante Flores as Bottom knock it out of the (Shakespeare in the) park. In fact, Flores’ donkey embodiment might be one of the best I have ever seen, stage or screen. There will not be a dry eye (from crying) in the house once he transforms.
Finally, Kristin Raveneau’s “merry wanderer of the night” Puck is a revelation. She is sometimes all child-like joy (how most Pucks are played these days) but she knows when to pull back, reflect, and observe with bemused sobriety. Having her play the violin in one scene is an inspired touch.
All is certainly grand in this fairy land, and the “shadows have [not] offended.” May we never wake from this Dream of youth.
» Read Shelby-Allison Hibbs' story about Junior Players and teaching language to youth here