A Midsummer Night's Dream" continues at Dog Story Theater through April 27. Photo: Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company

Pigeon Creek Draws Big Laughs In Playful 'Midsummer'

By Judith Cookis Rubens

To reach today's audiences, theaters often try hard to make Shakespeare "cool." Productions, Broadway and regional, have been known to add modern costumes, accents, or go wild with sets and production values.

Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company has a different philosophy.

The year-round touring company, based in Grand Haven, aims for original staging practices - as in, the way it was done in the Bard's time period. There are minimal sets on thrust stages, universal lighting (audiences are visible to the actors, making interaction possible), cross-gendered casting, and doubling of roles.

Some might call it stripped down, risky even, but there's no question it puts the focus on Shakespeare's stories and themes.

With its latest, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Pigeon Creek takes on the often dressed-up fanciful comedy about four young lovers and some fairies out for fun.

Using simple robes, a few masks, a well-crafted donkey head, and one very versatile wood bench, a cast of 13 energetic actors turns out the laughs, making the Bard's romantic comedy thoroughly accessible, understandable and enjoyable.

Much of the credit is due to the strong foursome playing rotating lovers (thanks to some meddling fairies): Hermia (Kimi Griggs), Lysander (Antonio Copeland), Helena (Sarah Stark), and Demetrius (Brad Sytsma). Hermia, smitten with Lysander, despite her father's objections, wants nothing to do with Demetrius, her father's pick. Meanwhile, Hermia's gal pal, Helena, pines for Demetrius, and sets about tricking him to pick her. When the impish fairy Puck gets in the mix with a love spell-gone-wrong, it results in total confusion.

Helena, much to her surprise, soon has two suitors wooing her - a development she immediately finds suspect, as if she's being mocked. Stark, as incredulous Helena, brings great energy and anger, kicking off a delicious scene where the four friends battle it out verbally and physically, in and around (sometimes on) audience members. All four actors so fully commit to their dialogue and fight choreography, it appeared to cause at least one real injury on opening night (ouch).

When jealous Hermia and Helena spar over their men's affections, it's a scene you could witness in any high school hallway today, or, perhaps, a "Real Housewives" taping.

Also adding laughs are the merry band of misfit actors who stage a ridiculous love play at the nuptials of Queen Hippolyta and Theseus, Duke of Athens. Kathleen Bode gives a spirited interpretation of pompous, preening actor Nick Bottom, who has, perhaps, the strangest of all the "dreams" on this summer's night. Turned into an ass, literally, as part of a revenge game between Fairy King Oberon and Fairy Queen Titania, Bottom's metamorphosis is topped only by his buffoonish acting. The evening's best props are used during the play-within-a-play, to great effect.

Bottom's laborer pals-turned-actors are charmingly awful, and Steven Anderson has a fine turn as their weary director, Peter Quince.

Kyle Westmaas and Janelle Mahlmann (doubling as Oberon and Titania) make headstrong partners, while Kate Tubbs is a playful, mischievous Puck.

Pigeon Creek smartly introduces each act with a modern song, hinting at the play's themes. The first act gets a fun rendition, set to flute, of "1234" (Oh, You're Changing Your Heart).

Directors Kat Hermes and Scott Lange rightly focus on getting their actors to truly understand, feel and project Shakespeare's prose and, here, it works.

Who needs modern day dress or big-budget sets and lighting, when the emotions still connect?

For some in the (heavily young) audience, it might have been a first taste of Shakespeare. Judging from their enthusiastic reaction, it likely won't be their last. And that's kind of the point.


'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company at Dog Story Theatre, 7 Jefferson SE, Grand Rapids. 8 p.m. April 18-19 & 24-26, and 3 p.m. April 20-27. $7-14. 616-425-9234. http://www.dogstorytheater.com

The production then moves to Seven Steps Up, 116 S. Jackson St., Spring Lake. 7:30 p.m. May 2. $7-14. 616-850-0916. http://www.pcshakespeare.com

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