Paul Love, Associate Toronto Critic
Creating Shakespearean productions that are accessible and intriguing entertainment for people of all ages is a true challenge. To do it consistently for a quarter century, well, that’s another thing entirely. Yet, the Driftwood Theatre Group has been doing just that since 1995. During that time, there is only one play that the company has produced more than twice for their Bard’s Bus Tour — A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And this summer, Driftwood is presenting their fourth iteration of this wonderful play as A (Musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Why revisit this particular play so often? Driftwood’s Artistic Director (and the man who brought the company into existence all those years ago), D. Jeremy Smith, will tell you that it’s the play’s central theme of community — bringing people of all walks of life together in celebration and merriment — that is at the heart of why Driftwood itself exists.
It doesn’t hurt that Midsummer is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays, filled with laughter and fun, and one that really dovetails with outdoor summer performance. At the centre of the story is the upcoming wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, the Amazon queen. There are four young lovers caught in a love … rectangle? Hermia is in love with Lysander and Lysander is in love with Hermia, but Hermia’s father, Egeus, has arranged for Hermia to marry Demetrius, but Hermia does not love Demetrius. Hermia’s best friend, Helena, is in love with Demetrius, but Demetrius broke up with Helena to pursue Hermia. Got all that? In another plot, a group of Athenian tradespeople, known as the Mechanicals, are busily rehearsing a play that they will perform at Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. Meanwhile, the King of the Fairies, Oberon, seeks to punish the Queen of the Fairies, Titania, for refusing to let him have her changeling boy. Oberon enlists the help of his trusty, troublemaking sprite, Robin Goodfellow (a.k.a. Puck), to play a trick on Titania. The people of Athens cross paths with the fairies in the forest, and some magic-tinged mischief ensues.
In this version of the play, music plays an integral role: many of the characters’ speeches are sung instead of spoken, often giving them a greater impact; entire songs have been added that flesh out the story; and a musical score (of sorts) is created almost entirely by the voices of the performers, which allows the action of the play to flow seamlessly from scene to scene. Vocalist Alison Beckwith and composer Tom Lillington add a powerful boost of great musical energy with their soaring voices.
Ahmed Moneka is a delight to watch as he attacks the role of Puck with boundless energy and an infectious grin. He is instantly likeable as the mischievous Puck, interacting with the characters — as well as the audience — with a childlike exuberance. His few scenes as Egeus offer insight into Mr. Moneka’s range as we witness the fiery intensity of a man driven by his selfish goals.
If you’re going to make Midsummer into a big musical production, you need a rock star. And James Dallas Smith is that rock star. He looks (and sounds) like he was plucked right off the stage of a 70s-era rock concert with his flowing silvery robes (that light up, of course) and mirrored sunglasses — and with a powerhouse singing voice that has incredible range. Mr. Smith’s Oberon, with his cock-sure grin, always maintains his playful spirit, seemingly ready to rock and roll all night, and his scenes with Mr. Moneka’s Puck are particularly enjoyable. Contrasting nicely with his Oberon performance is Mr. Smith’s Theseus — a no-nonsense, all-business type who was born to be in charge.
Siobhan Richardson does a great job in her dual performance as Hippolyta and Titania, giving us two characters with very distinct personalities, but who are both confident, powerful women who can hold their own with anyone. It is in Ms. Richardson’s Hippolyta, particularly, that we see a real warmth and sincerity in her characterization.
The foursome of actors playing the young lovers — (in order of appearance) Nick Dolan (Demetrius), Nathaniel Hanula-James (Lysander), Marissa Orjalo (Hermia), and Kelsi James (Helena) — add much talent and energy to this production. All are great singers. All have a great instinct for physical comedy. And all have a keen ability to speak Shakespeare’s difficult text with ease. Mr. Hanula-James and Ms. Orjalo are hysterical in their portrayal of Lysander and Hermia as vapid millennials, Mr. Dolan displays wonderful comedic chops during his scene as the wall, and Ms. James is hilarious in her scenes as Helena — desperately trying to get Demetrius to pay attention to her, and in the moment where she believes Demetrius, Lysander, and Hermia are all playing a trick on her.
To paraphrase D. Jeremy Smith’s director’s notes, the character of Bottome is the heart of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Thankfully, Mr. Smith was able to lure the highly talented Steven Burley back to the Driftwood stage to play Bottome. Mr. Burley has a knack for comedy — physical and otherwise — that would leave you silently dumbstruck if it weren’t for all the laughter. His comfort with Shakespeare’s words (and natural ability to pepper them with modern asides), his wonderful facial expressions, and his incredible singing voice make for a stunning performance that really does give this production its heart.
Kudos to D. Jeremy Smith for staging choices that always keep the show moving at a spirited pace, and to all who contributed to the eclectic design (ladders as trees, with desk-lamp lighting was a particularly great choice) that has become an integral part of Driftwood’s style.
Audio troubles are always a possibility with outdoor theatre shows where the performers are miked, and there were some technical difficulties on opening night. However, when you have a talented cast who not only don’t allow these glitches to affect their performance, but who instantly increase their projection to make sure the audience doesn’t miss a thing, it becomes a reason to heap more praise upon this show’s capable cast.
Driftwood has done its 25-year legacy proud with this wildly entertaining marriage of comedy and music. It is truly a must-see production.
Photo of Steven Burley provided by Dahlia Katz.
The show is being staged until August 18th at outdoor venues across Ontario (as far-flung as Napanee, St. Catharines, and Bobcaygeon, and with several performances in the GTA). The full tour list and further details can be found at driftwoodtheatre.com.
All performances start at 7:30 pm and are either pay what you can or free (with donations accepted).
The show is approximately two hours with no intermission.