Stark Naked’s ‘Midsummer’

14 Mar

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By JOHN DeMERS

I can’t be 100% certain, but I think Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first live theater I ever saw, being loaded into a yellow school bus in New Orleans and taken downtown for a touring production at the old (now reborn) Civic Theater.  I remember enjoying it, the magic and mystery of it all. And though I’ve seen most Shakespeare plays on stage since then and read all the rest, Midsummer remains my favorite – even more so after Stark Naked Theater wowed me with its rendition in Houston last night.

As “co-directed” by Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, who also co-founded the company and “co” its artistic direction, the play tries to let the Bard’s flourishes of awesome lyrical language stand on their own (they do) and concentrate on relationships, on motivation – which is just another way of saying on “humanity.” Instead of the usual special effects, from flying fairies to one man’s transformation into an ass – not such a long journey, several women characters imply – there is simply a very tangled web of romantic love. In fact, that’s pretty much the whole idea: that it takes something akin to supernatural intervention to make any man or any woman love the one who actually loves them back. In frolicking through both medium and message, Stark Naked’s Midsummer is magnificently directed and acted by a local cast that seems to be having the time of its life.

As is understood about Shakespeare’s time, it is both a cost-savings and a theatrical effect that all the actors play multiple roles. There is a story about love set in Athens (though hardly during the Age of Pericles), a story about a group of comical more-or-less rednecks trying to put on a play, and also a story about conflict, jealousy and romance in the invisible fairy kingdom that apparently watches over everything and occasionally, in that Greek way, intrudes to make things better and often makes things worse. It’s all lighthearted and utterly luminous, helped along by several recurring Stark Naked favorites and four promising actors from the University of Houston. They change (more like adjust, really) costumes and expressions, sometimes before our eyes, to become their different characters.

The entire cast deserves (and gets) enthusiastic applause, and it’s an ensemble performance from start to finish. Most impressive, though, are Luis Galindo and Courtney Lomelo, especially when they blend flirtatiousness and sometimes outright lust as king and queen of the fairies, and Philip Hays in the beloved, mischievous role of Puck. Drake Simpson has stood out in many Stark Naked productions, both the light and the very dark, but he delivers a bit of no-holds-barred comic bravura as Bottom (the workman and incompetent actor who becomes an ass in more than metaphor, only to have the queen of the fairies fall in love with him) that I’ll remember whenever I see this play for the rest of my life.

God only knows what Shakespeare was thinking when he penned the hilarious nightmare of misguided romance in search of a happy ending that is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If he was as smart about the real life this mirrors as he was about theater, we hope he was imagining a production something like this.

Photo credit: Gabriella Nissen

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