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December 10, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 10, 2004

Dream for a winter's evening Dream for a winter's evening (December 10, 2004)

Shakespeare's classic language is the star of Pear's production

by Diana Reynolds Roome

There is something provocative about doing Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in December.

Yet this play is all about paradox and confusion: "tragical mirth ... hot ice and wondrous strange snow." The set is a tiny, blue stage floor surrounded by illuminated silver birch trees, suggesting a forest where fairies dwell and four human lovers are first lost -- both to each other and themselves -- and then found again.

And though it's a comedy in which all ends well, there are moments when events look as though they could turn nasty -- as when Hermia (Shannon Stowe) is threatened with a nunnery or even death if she refuses to obey her harsh father, Egeus (Nicolae Muntean), and marry the man of his choice.

But this winter production at the Pear Avenue Theatre, directed by Michael Spector and Diane Tasca, has a glow that keeps growing and ends up warming not only the ears and eyes but the heart. By the time the cast performs the final dance of harmony and Puck (Patricia Tyler) reminds us that the play was but a dream, the audience is feeling the effects of a powerful dramatic draft -- concocted from romance, misunderstanding, magic, amazement, reassurance and laughter. One source of amazement is the cast's versatility. Ten actors play the 21 listed dramatis personae , a feat they perform by means of quick garment changes in full sight. Jackets hanging from a few posts at the back of the bare stage remind us that drama is essentially about the illusion conjured up when an actor inhabits a role and the audience conspiratorially agrees to believe in it.

When Helena (Heidi Hooker) is transformed from a bitterly complaining girl into a terrified tailor named Robin Starveling, we go with her new persona willingly. Soon she morphs once more -- becoming Moonshine, who painstakingly holds up a lantern, with a thorn bush and wooden dog attached to her pantaloons, for the "tedious brief tragedy" (actually a riotous farce) of "Pyramus and Thisbe," performed by the rustics for the wedding night of the Duke of Athens and his new Queen, Hippolyta (Tasca). By this time, Demetrius (Ray Renati), the object of Helena's love, has become Flute the bellows mender, who is elected to play Thisbe -- in full drag.

By the same means, Hermia (Stowe) transforms into Snug, and then -- with her red hair over her face -- into the Lion whose much-disputed roars (lest the ladies "be affeared") sound more like the squeaks of a mouse. Though this is pure ham, Stowe's tears are believable as she portrays Hermia, the girl who cannot marry her beloved Lysander (Scott Hartley, who also plays a worried Wall), and they make us realize how easily the subject-matter of this comedy could have become a very different kind of play.

The only actor who stays firmly inside one part is Patricia Tyler, whose Puck comes across as an old soul twinkling with mischief that is never intended to cause harm -- though it comes close. As Tyler observed in the program, "a middle-aged, female Puck" is quite an opportunity and she brings to it an irrepressible sense of the absurdity of human behavior ("Lord, what fools these mortals be!") and the fun of leading them in a pretty dance. Puck and Oberon (Mark D. Messersmith) are especially gleeful as they cook up their preposterous scheme of squeezing the juice of "the little Western flower" into eyes that will make anyone "madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees."

In the case of Titania, the Fairy Queen (also played by Tasca), this happens to be Nick Bottom the weaver, transformed by Puck into an ass. Jimmy Gunn, as Bottom, prods everyone out of the dreamlike mood in a loud and bossy takeover of the stage -- both the one we're watching and the glade in the woods where he is trying to force a team of untutored artisans to cobble together a drama fit for the Duke of Athens' nuptial night. Gunn's rough roistering seems to prod the cast into a new level of comedic antics, bringing out an abandonment to silliness that is essential for the "Pyramus and Thisbe" part of the play.

Less hilarious but equally engaging is the situation comedy between Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius as they fall in and out of love, "amazedly, half sleep, half waking." Coming across almost as an ancient prototype of the "Friends" sitcom, this scene deliciously reveals self-delusion, infatuation, jealousy, petty-mindedness, bitchiness, outrage, low self-esteem and quick-change moodiness that could have been observed and scripted yesterday. Even date etiquette comes under discussion.

Sitting only feet away from the actors, on chairs arranged around the stage with the effect of theater in the round, one has the rare luxury of hearing every word. When all is said and done, it's the rich flow of language, jumping to life in all its various moods, which emerges as the undisputed star of the play.

With the right kind of help Shakespeare always creates magic -- even when turning summer into winter and back again.
What: Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K in Mountain View
When: Through Dec. 19. Show times are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $10-$20.
Info: Call (650) 254-1148 or visit

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