Every year, Wishing Chair Productions entertains nearly 15,000 children at the Main Library’s intimate theater space. The group often puts on ambitious puppet shows, and its current puppet-theater production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is especially rewarding.
Artistic director Brian Hull and his team spent a full year working on this show, creating a colorful set and some truly amazing marionettes. The production condenses the Bard’s work into a mere 67 minutes, distilling the fanciful comedy to its best-loved highlights.
The 20 puppet characters all perform to prerecorded voice tracks, and some elite local actors take on leading roles. Mark Cabus gives a rollicking caricature of Bottom, while Tia Shearer provides an appropriately airy Puck and Denice Hicks a regal Hippolyta and Titania. All four puppeteers—Hull, Mary Tanner Bailey, Pete Carden and Jennifer Kleine—also contribute voices, with Hull’s Oberon being especially memorable.
Van Gogh’s famous painting “Starry Night” was the inspiration for the set. It not only re-creates the work’s wash of colors but also manages to replicate a strong sense of the master’s thick brush strokes. Hull oversaw the set construction, paying particular attention to the texturing of flats necessary to create a distinctive impressionistic style. The set is further adorned with glittering lights.
Dan Landes’ original score—much of it recorded in his home studio—kicks in immediately with stirring string and harp sounds, and it continues throughout with melodious charm. Keyboardist Jeff Taylor also contributes some prerecorded (but improvised) dance music, and the show features some strategically placed sound effects as well.
The puppets—outfitted in Rhonda Keaton’s richly tailored costumes—are simply a marvel of inspiration. Oberon’s red- and green-lit eyes are wonderfully ominous. Puck, meanwhile, looks like a cross between a hedgehog and a chicken, and we watch him and his wild tuft of feathers fly magically around the small auditorium.
A visual and aural delight, this production nonetheless presents some performance challenges. The larger marionettes efficiently hide the actors, but the smaller hand-and-rod puppets must compete for stage space with their human interpreters. Also, Hull and his crew need to work on coordinating the prerecorded voices with the movements of the puppets.
There’s plenty of time for that to happen, though, since the show runs through Oct. 20. Kids probably won’t grasp all of Shakespeare’s subtleties. Still, the production’s whimsy should please young and old alike.
Bard fatigueThe 20th Shakespeare in the Park opened last weekend with an imaginatively reconceived version of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Director Brenda Sparks relocates the story to post-World War II New Orleans, and there’s a lot about this production that captures the spirit of the Big Easy. Designer Scott Boyd’s set, for instance, is a pastel-hued creation of the Vieux Carre neighborhood that’s complete with wrought-iron balconies. Tom McBryde’s music mixes jazz themes with incidental music, including a soliloquy set to a riff from “Hit the Road, Jack.” And Arlita Ellis’ costumes are excellent approximations of 1940s and ’50s garb.
But while the play is a visual feast, it doesn’t catch fire until Act 2. Part of the problem is the tiresome script, which becomes even more exhausting when mediocre slapstick bits are added to juice the fading comedy.
The cast includes serious local pros such as Nan Gurley, Denice Hicks, Pete Vann, Sam Whited, Jon Royal, Randall Lancaster and Matthew Carlton, and they all do their best to elicit chuckles. But the results are hit or (mostly) miss.
Thomas Ward stars in the central role of Sir John Falstaff. He blusters about uninhibitedly, which seems to be the right thing to do. But he can’t avoid being thrust into cornball scenarios, which tends to turn his bluster into tedium.
For their parts, the members of the festival’s apprentice company (especially Anna Millard and Brad Burns) acquit themselves respectably in the roles of townsfolk, youngsters and sprites.
Sparks has her players speaking a mix of accents, with Irish and Scottish dominating. (Apparently, it never dawned on anyone to use some form of indigenous N’awlins Creole.) One character, Dr. Caius, is supposedly French, but his inflection sounds Italian. The mismatch adds to the confusion. So does the constant flow of street life onstage, with ensemble members moving around like frenetic Mardi Gras revelers.This Merry Wives requires a lot of patience from its audience. It may also demand a deeper appreciation for the Bard than you’re likely to find in the average theatergoer.
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