Last summer, things weren’t looking so hot for the oldest free outdoor Shakespeare festival in the country. Kentucky Shakespeare’s summer season in Central Park had dwindled to a single professional production, which then closed early due to managerial issues that culminated in the artistic director’s resignation in July. But when former artistic associate Matt Wallace, then head of Shakespeare Behind Bars, came back to the company as the new artistic director, he promised he’d turn things around and make the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival better than ever, all on a smaller budget than his predecessor’s.
Wallace planned three high-quality professional productions running in repertory for the price of one, along with a high school conservatory show and four community partner productions (for a total of 56 performances, running through mid-August) by employing local talent and resources and good old-fashioned community partnership. Here’s more on the full schedule.
If last night’s opening of the festival is an indication of the full season to come, Wallace has delivered on his promise. His delightful and spirited Victorian-themed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opened last night to an appreciative crowd of about 700 (that’s a pretty full house for the Central Park amphitheatre) who followed every plot twist and gag in the romantic comedy thanks to Wallace’s clear and insightful direction and a new wireless body mic system that meant neither lowing train nor roaring plane could step on his actors’ lines. The newly-renovated C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre stage extends out on both sides to wrap around the giant oak trees that have flanked the stage for decades, providing an expansive stage for the romantic comedy.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is an into-the-woods story about four innocent, lovelorn Athenians — two eloping together, one in hot pursuit and the last in pursuit of the pursuer — waylaid in the forest by mischievous fairies. The play begins with the world’s cutest little boy (Vaughn Ramirez) wandering onto the bare stage in Victorian nightdress. He finds an ornate music box and opens it. A magical night — or is this all a dream? — follows.
Right before Duke Theseus and Amazon queen Hippolyta (Abigail Bailey Maupin, who also plays a fairy) are to marry, local society girl Hermia (Karina Strange) announces that she wants to marry the very nice Lysander (Eric Werner), but her imperious father (Kyle Ware, also a fairy) wants to match her with alpha male Demetrius (Madison Niederhauser) instead.
The culture doesn’t leave Hermia many choices. Demetrius, the nunnery or death — none appeal, so she and Lysander hatch a plan to head for the home of his wealthy widowed auntie who has always looked upon him as a son (ka-ching!). Her best friend Helena (Maggie Lou Rader) is madly in love with Demetrius — who’s not interested, thanks — and thinks she can get in his good graces by spilling the beans about the elopement. Demetrius sets out into the woods to find Hermia, and Helena follows.
Here’s where things get weird — fairy king Oberon (also Hooper) is waging a feud with fairy queen Titania (the regal Tia Davis) over a changeling boy (the young Ramirez, still in nightie) she’s adopted. They’re on the outs romantically, but Oberon has a soft spot for unrequited love. He spies Helena prostrating herself before Demetrius and orders his trouble-making servant Puck (Tony Milder) to dope Demetrius so that he will fall in love with the first person he sees upon waking. Ideally, Helena. But that’s not how it goes, and a chain reaction of human absurdity begins between the four young Athenians.
Just for kicks, Puck also enchants Nick Bottom (Gregory Maupin), the ridiculous leading man of a rag-tag group of blue-collar artisans who decide to put on a play for the duke’s wedding day. Bottom, rotten luck, ends up with a donkey’s head for a head. Meanwhile, back at fairy headquarters, Oberon also doses Titania, and the first person she sees is the donkey-headed Bottom. Kids, don’t mess with magic fairy herb potions that cause intense love at first sight no matter what, okay?
Wallace, who directs this production and the upcoming “Hamlet,” has assembled a top-notch cast of mostly Louisville-based actors whose versatility and tight craft will be on full display throughout the season (all cast members perform in each of the three mainstage plays, so for example, Megan Massie, who plays the minor fairy Peaseblossom, will be seen later as Ophelia in “Hamlet” and the chorus in “Henry V,” directed by Amy Attaway).
As the feuding fairy royals, Hooper and Davis are equally matched — passionate, imposing, and resplendent in costume designer Donna Lawrence-Downs’ gorgeous woodland-inspired creations. Milder’s Puck has a weird, unsettling edge to his demeanor, which, along with his horns and ghostly appearance, allows him to deftly sidestep the weak whimsy a lesser company would bestow on this wild card of a fellow.
Once the devoted lovers are torn apart by Puck’s mischief, Strange and Werner unleash their formidable physical comedy chops and are met head-on by Niederhauser and Rader, who goes for broke with an “I Wanna Be Your Dog”-style Helena whose incredulity over her pathetic shambles of a love life (we’ve all been there) grows wilder every minute the four are in the woods.
But it’s the Mechanicals, the hapless amateur theatre-makers, who steal the show: Matt Lytle as Peter Quince, beleaguered playwright and director; Maupin as the pompous Bottom, and wannabe actors Flute (Daniel Hill), Snout (Zachary Burrell), Snug (Jeremy Sapp, whose “lion” is a masterpiece) and Starveling (Jonathan O’Brien) offer up a hilarious meta look at how the theatrical sausage is made that’s matched only by the bizarre, genius play they enact for the Athenians at the end. Even if you’ve seen a hundred productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” you owe it to yourself to see this one if only for “Pyramus and Thisbe,” the best worst play-within-a-play — a triumph of absurdist comedy — ever performed.
Because the production is set outside in Central Park and the environment (much like the love lives of mortals and fairies alike) is not so tightly under control, unexpected things can happen, like a small dog escaping his owner and trotting up on stage during the first half. To his credit, the unflappable Kyle Ware stayed in fairy character, scooped up the pup and carried him off-stage with such panache that it almost seemed as if it was planned and perfectly choreographed. The wireless microphone system overcame the bulk of the expected environmental disruptions, though on opening night cues weren’t 100 percent flawless (I suspect the company will have smoothed out its use by the weekend).
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs through June 22, and then again July 16, 19, 24 and 26. The festival continues through August 17 with performances Tuesday-Sunday in Central Park. Food trucks and a full bar offer refreshments for sale, and pre-show entertainment begins at 7:15 p.m. before each performance. Productions begin promptly at 8 p.m. All seats are free and available on a first-come basis. Pro tip: bring a seat cushion for the wooden amphitheater benches (I hear they are sold at the merch table this year, too).