Thursday, May 22, 2014

theatre review FAIRY WORLDS! Southwest Shakespeare Company, May 16

Click here to read my complete review (highlights below) of Fairy Worlds! at the Southwest Shakespeare Company. 

Tracy Liz Miller and Randy Messersmith

Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of his most accessible and most frequently produced comedies. I've seen various adaptations of the play before, some more successful than others. Fortunately, the production that the Southwest Shakespeare Company is currently presenting is quite good and extremely unusual with two huge benefits going for it. First, the running time is just slightly over 90 minutes, which means you get all of the action and famous lines from the play without any of what some people might say are the "boring" parts, which, while purists might not approve, is a big bonus for theatregoers who aren't too keen on their Shakespeare. But the biggest benefit is the setting. Retitled as Fairy Worlds! and presented as a co-production with the Desert Botanical Garden, the play is set in the outdoor event area of the Garden. Since most of the play is set in the forests outside of Athens, it makes sense to draw upon the natural outdoor setting of the Desert Botanical Garden to frame the action on the stage. With fairy lights in the surrounding trees, more trees behind the stage that are awash in changing color to form a natural backdrop, cactus off to the sides, and Camelback Mountain off in the distance, a mystical aura heightens the magical moments in Shakespeare's script.

Part romantic comedy, part fantasy, the play is a pure ensemble piece that follows several characters entwined in romance. At the center are two pairs of young lovers who become lost in the woods and fall under magic potions of the fairies and sprites who live there. This is framed by two other couples, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, who are about to be married, and Titania and Oberon, the Fairy Queen and King, who use their forest home as a playground for the mortals whom they encounter there, mischievously playing tricks on them. Added to the mix are a group of bumbling Athenian tradesmen, led by the weaver Nick Bottom, who plan to perform a play at Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding feast, but first, Bottom finds himself mixed up in the tricks of the fairy world.

Director/Adaptor Jared Sakren skillfully keeps his abridged plot moving forward, with an appropriate balance between a light touch for the comic moments and a more assured directive for the few serious ones. Together, they nicely combine to portray the enchantment and humor of love. Sakren is also quite effective in his staging, with nice use of the expansive stage. An acrobatically "choreographed" lover's quarrel actually brought a few gasps to the audience at the performance I attended, in reaction to how effectively and accomplished it is staged.

As most productions of the play do, two actors play the parts of both Theseus and Oberon and Hippolyta and Titania. Tracy Liz Miller brings nice layers of mysticism and feistiness to Titania and Hippolyta, appropriate since Hippolyta has just been defeated in war by Theseus and is somewhat reluctant to wed him. Randy Messersmith is quite effective as Oberon, with just the right level of foreboding to show jealousy and anger he displays, and how he uses magic for his benefit, though his Theseus is a bit too one-note for me. However, he does display a nice combination of regality and leadership in the part. Ted Barton's Bottom has a sweet charm to his roughness, and perfectly hams it up. Barton brings a good blend of comic timing, expressive looks and funny voices to the role and his "death" scene in the play within the play is one of the funniest things you'll see on stage this season. Beau Heckman, who also plays two parts, brings the right level of excitement to both Peter Quince, one of Bottom's co-patriots, as well as Egeus, the father of Hermia, one of the four young lovers.

As the four young lovers, Allison Sell is a spirited and emotional Hermia, while Portia Beacham provides a perfectly high-strung Helena. Andy Cahoon and Jeremiah James make dashing partners for Hermia and Helena. Paul Michael Thomson, as Puck, the sprite who continually uses the love potion on the wrong person, is acrobatic, lean and small, just like you'd expect a sprite to be. His physical abilities work well with the choreographed movement, where motions like the wave of his hand create perfectly timed "magical" reactions from the mortal characters.

Jeff Thomson's scenic design incorporates an expansive stage, which is used effectively, though the majority of the important action is staged toward the front or center. With minimal set pieces, the simple use of some fog effects, and lush lighting from Michael J. Eddy, we are transported to the various locations in the play. Several light towers are seamlessly incorporated into the scenery with snake lighting that, when lit, appear to be the colorful branches of magical forest trees.

With the combination of the dreamlike sets and lighting, sublime costumes and the swiftness of the abridged version of the script, Fairy Worlds! is a fun-filled, fast-paced, romantic evening with a very good cast, confident direction and an impressive setting that casts a magical spell over the audience.

The Southwest Shakespeare Company production of Fairy Worlds! runs through June 1st, 2014, with performances at The Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 N. Galvin Parkway in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (602) 535-1202.

Photo: Joe Abbruscato

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