photographs by Barry Wisdom /
Talk about a BFF.
For centuries, Shakespeare has proven to be the very best friend a theater troupe could have. With all of the playwrights who have since put pen to parchment, or have ignited the afterburners on their inkjet printers, it’s still Wild Bill Shakespeare who today’s stage companies turn to when looking to balance their sometimes costly, sometimes scatological world premiere programming with established, “classy” classics (many of which are royalty-free).
In addition, directors around the world have demonstrated time and again that the Bard’s canon is not a dry, static collection of Dead Sea scrolls, but a treasure chest of ever-relevant human emotions open to endless reinterpretation.
In just the past year, Sacramento-area playhouses have presented Shakespearean plays that have featured zombies getting whacked by sword-wielding, iambic pentameter-spouting royals, as well as productions with 21st-century twists that jazzed-up the oft-told tales with updated settings, costumes, and props, including anachronistic cell phones (“Good morrow! Dost thou hearest me now? Dost thou hearest me now?”).
In Sacramento Theatre Company’s upcoming production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” opening Saturday, March 2, ancient Athens has moved forward in time to the 1930s, but what really distinguishes STC’s take on Shakespeare’s most-magical of comedies, is evident in its cast list.
“What I find most interesting, exhilarating and challenging about this production is that we were tasked with the casting of nine actors in total,” said director Christine Nicholson, who was experienced in mounting minimized Shakespearean productions on behalf of such companies as Capital Stage and the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival, but was never required to develop a roster with fewer than 10 speaking parts.
“I had seen a six-person ‘Macbeth’ in Seattle,” she said, noting the concept of the intimate “chamber” play” seems to be “really taking fire.”
“I found that ‘Macbeth’ to be an amazing production that was really actor-focused. So the opportunity to work on a kind of chamber ‘Midsummer’ was a wonderful opportunity. Each actor plays a character in each of the three intertwining stories. It’s pretty exciting.”
“They often walk off stage as one character, and almost immediately walk back on as another character,” said Nicholson. “Our costume designer, Jessica Minnihan, has worked tirelessly to create costumes that can be completely changed in a matter of seconds. I’ve tried to cast actors who have the skill set to quickly change from character to character, and I love watching that transformation.”
In addition to selecting actors proficient in the art of the quick change, Nicholson said there were more artistic considerations involved in populating the three worlds of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“I’ve also tried to cast actors who have real comedic sensibilities,” Nicholson said. “At its heart, ‘Midsummer’ is a romantic comedy driven by ‘fairies.’ I like to think of the fairies as those aspects of our humanity that drive us to wonderful, unexpected, crazy behavior as we pursue that most human of all emotions – love. And I love every minute of it.”
Nicholson’s cast with “real comedic sensibilities” is familiar to active theatergoers: Elizabeth Holzman, Brent Bianchini, Matt K. Miller, Michael RJ Campbell, Troy Thomas, Melanie Marshall, Anthony Person, Carolyn Howarth and Jason Oler.
Holzman, an Elk Grove native with a degree in theater from California State University, Stanislaus, is one of those local actors who have ridden the recent wave of Sacramento-area Shakespearean productions, with roles in “Taming of the Shrew” at Sacramento Shakespeare Festival and Jackson’s Main Street Theatre Works, “Romeo and Juliet” at Resurrection Theatre, “Love’s Labours Lost” at Big Idea Theatre, and “Merchant of Venice” at Imprint Theater Works.
“I love the language,” said Holzman, whose first brush with Shakespeare came early as a sixth-grade GATE student. “This play has been done thousands upon thousands of times on stages all across the globe; and, at the same time, there’s no production that’s exactly the same. That’s the magic of Shakespeare. Nothing is permanent in the theater world.”
Holzman’s admiration for Shakespeare’s wordsmithing is shared by Bianchini, a Sacramento State junior who added a bit of derring-do as the university’s titular lead in last year’s iambic pentameter-flavored adaptation of “Robin Hood.” He also put a similar spin on the Excalibur-swinging once-and-future king in Luther Hanson’s 2012 adaptation of “King Arthur” at Sac Shakes.
As comfortable as he is performing Shakespeare, Bianchini said he’s by no means a master, but a journeyman with much to learn.
“To this day, it’s a challenge; I still have to look up words and do research,” Bianchini said. “The average theatergoer is going to miss more words than they get – it’s the actor’s job to do that work for them, to understand everything being said and make it clear.”
“We had a group of sixth-graders in here today (for a preview),” said Holzman. “I can guarantee they didn’t understand every word, but they were uproarious. They understood enough, and loved what we were doing onstage. If the actors are doing their jobs, it takes about 15 minutes to adjust to the language. You don’t need to understand every word – the brain is smart enough to translate.”
“It’s like broccoli,” she continued. “You may not like it, but if you put cheese on it, it becomes palatable. Well, what we actors do on stage is add the cheese.”
For those still on the fence about taking in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” STC is offering a “prologue” 45 minutes before each performance – providing ticket holders a cost-free opportunity to learn more about the show, its themes, its author and its production history.
Along with the physical humor and “cheese,” Bianchini said many theatergoers with only a passing familiarity with Shakespeare might be unaware of how low-down and earthy the Bard could be.
“Shakespeare was pretty dirty, and once audience members realize what his characters are saying, it’s sometimes shocking to them,” said Bianchini. “For the actor, it’s quite entertaining to add to that ribaldry. It’s definitely an art form to be suggestive without being vulgar.”
As one might imagine, the show’s director is a similarly enamored of Stratford-upon-Avon’s favorite scribe.
“Someone once said to me they told fearful relatives the way to watch and experience Shakespeare is to listen to the set-up of each scene, and then to really watch it unfold,” said Nicholson. “Shakespeare works visually, and his stories can be followed visually. We may not know all of the allusions to Greek classics or Elizabethan politics, but we can see people fall in and out of love.”
Nicholson said her affection for Shakespeare – from his talent and skill as a playwright, to his place in contemporary theater programming, is far from being as fickle as the passions exhibited by the bewitched couples in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“I’ve been a part of Sac Shakes for many years … so, I have very strong ideas about Shakespeare’s place in the theatrical repertoire. I believe that his works wrestle with the human experience in some of the most profound ways possible. And I think that most regional theaters do have a relationship with his body of work, whether they produce him yearly or not.”
For Nicholson, the play’s the thing. The fact that Shakespeare’s catalogue is free of royalties is secondary. Still, she can’t ignore the financial considerations in an economy in which theater troupes have to make every shilling count.
“Definitely, royalties can be a staggering budget point for many companies, large and small,” Nicholson said. “And it is always a consideration. But, usually, the cast size and tech requirements are large, which is why I say that royalty-free is definitely only one consideration.”
“I think that most companies produce his works because they are powerful depictions of human interaction, of the experience – both good and bad – of this life we lead,” she continued. “And Shakespeare has a great deal to say about the contemporary experience. He deals with themes of greed, ambition, betrayal, deception, intrigue, of matters fiscal, of patriotism, family dynamics, human psychology, and, of course, the workings of love.
“He explores our passions as they ennoble us, and our passions as they degrade us. Generally, the comedies explore the former, and the tragedies the latter.”
“’Midsummer’ looks at love through the eyes of youth and the flame of our first passion, through infatuation, through love as it drives us to distraction,” she said. “(Shakespeare) explores how parental love may differ, and interfere with the desires of the child, even when that parent acts out of what is considered to be in the child’s best interest. He looks at the intersection of love and power, of love and jealousy, of love and desire. And he does it all through comedic devices we recognize and love.”
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
WHERE: The Sacramento Theatre Company Main Stage, 1419 H St., Sacramento, Calif.
WHEN: Previews continue through March 1; opens 8 p.m. March 2 and plays through March 24, with performances at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 12:30 and 6:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays
HOW MUCH: $15-$38 (discounts available for students, seniors and groups)
MORE INFO: Call the STC Wells Fargo Pavilion Box Office at (916) 443-6722 or toll free at (888) 478-2849, or go online at www.sactheatre.org