It is a season of seasons.
The 2016 Trinity Shakespeare Festival, which opened on the Texas Christian University campus this past weekend, offers A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an out-and-out comedy that revels in the lazy, hazy, crazy days of the calendar. The Winter’s Tale, a play that doesn’t readily fit any category, tells the sort of story meant to warm the dark and dreary short days of the year.
As a set, these productions brim with the same attributes that have graced this annual TCU-based event in all seven of its previous seasons. The acting and staging are exceptional in both, and the Bard is given all the respect he deserves without being too stuffy about it.
There are a number of familiar faces in this edition’s cast. Richard Haratine (as Oberon in Dream, and Polixenes in Winter) once again demonstrates his ability to disappear into any role and carry almost any show in the Shakespearean canon like Atlas holding up the world.
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TCU product Kelsey Milbourn continues her rise as one of the most versatile and talented actresses working on area stages with a fine performance in Dream, and her work as choreographer for both productions. David Coffee is every bit the joy he always is in this festival. His work with the young Garret Storms is a snapshot of two generations of Fort Worth actors at their best.
Also of note in both plays is the outstanding costuming. The work of Aaron Patrick DeClerk (Dream) and Lloyd Cracknell (Winter) enhances their respective shows enormously.
The only flaw shared by the pair is excessive length. Dream runs two hours and 40 minutes, while Winter clocks in at a butt-numbing three hours. Both shows could — and should — be shorter.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
This obvious choice for a summer Shakespeare festival is probably the most foolproof of all his works (if that term can be applied to any of them), and few opportunities for fantastical fun are missed in this production, directed with a heavy hand by Stephen Brown-Fried.
The plot deals with a pair of lovers who just can’t quite get together, largely because of close-minded elders (that seems to happen a lot in Willie Shakes’ plays, doesn’t it). But Lysander (Teddy Warren) won’t give up on his plan to wed the fair Hermia (Amber Flores), any more than Helena (Milbourn) is going stop chasing Demetrius (Mitchell Stephens), who has a thing for the decidedly uninterested Hermia.
The romantic adventures and misadventures of these mortals get all tangled up with the fairies living in the woods, led by Oberon (Haratine) and his queen, Titania (Trisha Miller), who have issues of their own. When a band of amateur actors wanders unwittingly into this mess, things just get weird.
Flores brings a lot of spunk to her role and gets some marvelous support from Milbourn. Coffee luxuriates in his role as Bottom, the sort of comic role which he was born to play. The agile Blake Hackler makes a super Puck.
But the primary strength of this production is its overall look. DeClerk’s costuming, and the uncredited makeup jobs, are wonderful (be sure to notice, for example, the strange, vacant stares of many of the female fairies). The imaginative set by Bob Lavallee, and the sound design by Toby Jaguar Algya, also do a lot to help the play’s inherent magic work.
This production is broadly played with more than its share of physical comedy. In one particular scene, the lovers become a group of comic acrobats to visualize Shakespeare’s written humor. But, on the whole, this staging has a lot of respect for tradition.
It may not blaze any new trails, but it twinkles as brightly and pleases as thoroughly as could be hoped.
‘The Winter’s Tale’
While the intentions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are abundantly clear, The Winter’s Tale will keep you guessing. It has been described as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” meaning that it is difficult to label. This play begins in deep darkness, but ends in shimmering light.
Set in an indefinite time in the ancient world, the play introduces us to Leontes, the king of Sicily (J. Brent Alford) and his friend, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia (Haratine). All is sweetness and light until, for no apparent reason, Leontes decides his queen, Hermione (Allison Pistorius) has been unfaithful with Polixenes.
His baseless, jealous rage leads to all sorts of tragic consequences.
When Hermione gives birth to a daughter, Leontes, thinking it is Polixenes’ child, orders that the newborn be dumped on some distant shore, where the gods can decide its fate. While all of this is in motion, Leontes’ young son keels over dead and, upon hearing the news, Hermione appears to do the same.
Such is the doom and gloom of Act One — and that does not even include the Revenant number done on the poor guy who has to abandon the baby. But Act Two, which is set 16 years later, is cast in a completely different light.
Leontes’ dumped daughter, Perdita (Amber Flores), has been rescued by a shepherd (David Coffee), and grows up to be beloved by Florizel (Teddy Warren), Polixenes’ son. So the second half of the play is all about the trials of getting the noble Florizel together with the (assumed) commoner, Perdita, and the atonement of Leontes, who belatedly realizes how wrong he was about everything.
But the act’s most memorable scenes involve the lighthearted antics of the pickpocket, Autolycus (Hackler). Can you see a happy ending coming?
Overall, this production, directed by TCU theater professor and founding artistic director of the festival, T.J. Walsh, is as natural as Dream is artificial. The ever-dependable Alford does a brilliant job with his tormented king. His exchanges with Pistorius are especially real and gripping.
While almost every actor has a truncated role (few players spend much time on stage in both acts), they put forth a fine, ensemble effort. It may help a little that the look of Cracknell’s costuming moves the action to the 19th century (Regency period?), bringing the characters slightly closer to us in time and making them seem more believable.
The one major problem spot with this production comes late in the second act when an episode of Glee seems to break out. Two songs are performed in a highly contemporary manner. The arrival of these numbers is as jolting as it is unnecessary.
The only thing accomplished by their inclusion is to make a play that is already much too long, longer still.