DISCLAIMER: Lara Lewis is a recent graduate of the Fountain School of Performing Arts and keeps personal relationships with much of the cast and creative team.
Philip Akin’s direction of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, simply, a triumph of modern theatre. In short, it is everything magical and beautiful that FSPA has the potential to be.
I haven’t seen a show like this in a long time.
I feel like “visually stunning” is thrown around often at the school as a way of describing money being thrown at a stage to cover half-baked ideas.
2015’s Quality Street and The Seagull were tediously predictable, and 2016’s The Green Bird, while gorgeous, was poorly conceived and executed. Not since Jure Gantar’s 2011 production of The Blood Wedding has the Sir James Dunn Theatre been used with such skill and treated with such attention as Midsummer.
Conceptually, this production of Midsummer is framed as an escapist fantasy in the shared dream of members of a prison labour camp. The sparse stage is decorated with scaffolding, a wheelbarrow, a sawhorse, tarps, and the facade of a house. The drearily, raggedly dressed actors transform in their fantasy into Shakespeare’s cast with astounding costumes.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start with the space. The Dunn, as it’s casually called, is a 190 seat proscenium stage with a variety of hidden tricks. Every year, a new feature of it is unveiled – last year we got a glimpse of its famous vomitorium – this year, we saw the dynamic depth of the in-stage elevator. The catwalk was utilized as an entrance for costumes, and moreover was used as the canvas onto which project a dazzling night sky.
The lighting, including the stars, were designed by long-time staff member Bruce MacLennan, and delicately operated by third-year tech student Amber Sanford. A cyclorama on the back wall displayed a stunning array of colours, changing with the tone of scenes and time of day, complimented by faint, warm, light trickling into a splattered pattern from above.
What I think is the saving grace of FSPA’s theatre program is their new designer, Snězana Pěsić, playing double duty as both costume and set designer, creating a cohesive, well-thought out portrait of falsehood and artifice. The costumes used in the “dream” of the play are stunning, gaudy accent pieces made from obnoxiously unnatural colours and palpably flimsy plastic, emphasizing the unreal nature of the action we see unfolding.
What makes FSPA shows interesting to watch over the course of years is how the cast evolves from a collection of individuals to a true ensemble. This acting class’ premiere show, February’s The Oresteia, was masterfully executed with a tone so serious you could cut it with a knife, which continued with October’s The Rimers of Eldritch.
In Midsummer, though, we get a chance to see who they are, and a glimpse of their true relationships with one another. They’re having fun, and that’s a beautiful thing. The trust built over four years has led to a cast who is comfortable playing not just on stage, but with each other.
Nathan Simmons plays both Oberon, the fairy king, and Theseus, the Duke of Athens. Theseus’s partner, Amazon queen Hippolyta, is played with wily sexuality by Samantha Thompson and the fairy queen, Titania is played by Lisa Corey.
The magnetism between Simmons and Thompson is undeniable, compared to his prickly yet tender relationship with Corey. Corey’s Titania is played with masterful power and an icy indifference, an intriguing mix of charm and detachment.
The team of workers, made up of Zac Comeau, Brittney Whitaker, Adrian Choong, and Laurie Fleet, and Michelle Leger make a delightful comic team. These actors, save Comeau with the addition of Thompson, also make up Titania’s entourage of fairy servants. Although Fleet and Choong were forgettable with the exception of their electric antics in their final scene, Whitaker’s Flute displayed the unexpected tenderness that makes the character so rewarding to play despite its small size.
Similarly, Leger’s use of Snug’s characteristic stutter was at times swallowed by the huge stage, while her fiery portrayal of Peaseblossom and her physical comedy in both roles left the crowd in pitiful stitches.
The stand out and comic centrepiece of the production is Nick Bottom, played by Brandon Liddard. As Bottom gave his opinions on theatre, I found myself wanting to tear his head off (not the donkey one), but eventually I came to realize that he is meant to be just that repulsive. Bravo, Mr. Liddard.
Stepheny Hunter is masterful as Puck, and is the perfect comic foil to Simmon’s scheming Oberon. Her modern touches to this classical character (likely the result of her extensive background in improvisation) make her almost more delightful to watch as she watches the other characters. Also, she wears a snapback made of blue bubble wrap. Genius.
The four lovers, and centrepieces of the drama are played by Kya Mosey (Hermia), Michael Kamras (Lysander), Sam Vigneault (Demetrius), and Kayla Gunn (Helena).
Something that I think is lost on many interpretations of Midsummer is the inherent sexuality in these characters and their actions. In this time period, “we’re running away to get married,” is pretty much code for, “we want to bang but not feel bad.”
Mosey, who regrettably seems to be typecast as the femme fatale, plays her Hermia with alternating insecure eroticism and hateful jealousy. Gunn’s Helena, despite being regrettably static in several scenes, radiates a delightfully gaudy desperation, again sticking with her “type” established in earlier shows. Vigneault’s Demetrius is alluring in a delicate, restrained way, playing off the look of “hot nerd.”
The biggest transformation was Micahel Kamras as Lysander, flitting between violent obsessiveness and tender affection. This role, especially in contrast to his previous ragged (and 40 years older) Skelly in Rimers, and his stoic, frankly forgettable Apollo, in the overstuffed Oresteia, shows remarkable versatility.
There is some excellent physical comedy in this love quadrangle, and their costumes tells almost as much of a story as their dialogue does.
Here’s my challenge for you, Fountain School:
We all know Mosey can play desirable yet cold, we all know Vigneault can play dreamy yet powerful, and we all know Gunn can play beautiful and abused.
Challenge us by challenging them. This criticism goes for the entire cast; all too often in acting classes, especially in ones this large, a handful of actors emerge as the “stars” of their year.
It’s a school, mix it up. The best of the best will get work, and therefore the chance to grow and improve, forever. Show us what those background characters have, I’m curious.
All in all, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a cohesive, well executed, joyful, ultimately thought-provoking piece of theatre.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Neptune Theatre from now until December 3rd Sir James Dunn Theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre.