The livin’ might be easy in Porgy and Bess, but the folks in Catfish Row didn’t have to worry about producing summertime Shakespeare.
The aptly named Optimist Theatre opened its sixth annual outdoor Shakespeare production this weekend, and this A Midsummer Night’s Dream proved a delight even with the occasional obstacles.
Despite its dramatic views of the city skyline, the small, hillside amphitheater in Kadish Park is hardly an ideal venue. Actors make their way on and off the postage-stamp stage in full view of the audience (they occasionally need to dodge bicylists making their way through the park). An attempt to boost the sound level through stage microphones leads to low-level hums and squeaks through much of the show. And of course, there are those in the audience who are more concerned with passing the snacks and keeping the wine glasses filled than with hearing some of the greatest poetry in the English language.
But Optimist’s Ron Scot Fry and Susan Scot Fry are undeterred, and we should be thankful. Shakespeare’s comedy alights here with a host of solid comic performances, and an imaginative and witty conceit that highlights the play’s topsy-turvy world.
Director Ron Scot Fry (along with dramaturg ML Cogar) sets this Midsummer in the “Summer of Love” – Haight-Ashbury in 1968 – complete with a dazzling array of rainbow-hued, hippie threads by costume designer Katie Gray. More importantly, the shift connects Shakespeare’s characters with personalities that register in our own time (or at least, Don Draper’s time). The men in the quartet of star-crossed lovers, for example: Emmitt Morgans’ Demetrius is a nebbishy, company man, while Shayne Steliga’s Lysander is a player, complete with mutton chops and colorful Carnaby Street clothes. The fairies of Midsummer’s magical world – led by Tom Reed’s Puck – are the Frisco flower children of the era. Even sporting an azure goatee, Reed has the look of a Vietnam conscientious objector. And it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the nymph’s forest chats about painted butterflies and dewberries happening in a Head Shop not far from Golden Gate Park. To bring it all into focus, percussionist Joseph Manussier and guitarist Paul Terrien bridge the scenes with an assortment of trippy Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane.
Within this framework, director Fry tells Shakespeare’s story well, and gives the actors a chance to revel in a heaping helping of great poetry. Todd Denning and Malkia Stampley lead the way as Oberon and Titania. And Kristin Hammargren and Kat Wodtke complete the quartet of flustered lovers. Chris Flieller is excitable and funny as Bottom, and his troupe of journeyman (Marcee Doherty-Elst, Mary B. Kababik, Robert WC Kennedy and Brian Miracle) have great fun in the reliably hilarious performance of Pyramus and Thisby that closes the play.
So while one might dream of an America or Milwaukee in which talented artists receive even a fraction of the public financial support we give to billionaires who dabble in professional sports franchises, we can be thankful for groups like Optimist. It is groups like Optimist that forge ahead with savvy and smarts and the determination that Shakespeare is worth it.