Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes

Having spent many nights careening through bizarre dreamscapes, I never fail to be amazed at the upside-down, inside-out logistics of an alternate universe where what does make sense, shouldn't -- and what should make sense, doesn't. Structural norms are routinely shattered. Routine constraints of gravity evaporate into thin air along with any rational restraints (which might otherwise provide a sense of gravitas).

As a medium for storytelling, film is usually best suited to capturing the ethereal nature of dreams. Rapid transitioning between images is easily achieved. Characters can quickly appear from (and disappear back into) the darkness or some kind of mysterious void. The throbbing, pulsing sensations that accompany hallucinations are handled with remarkable ease.

If only that ease could transfer to the stage with such magical fluidity. Even with a wealth of stagecraft and new technology at one's fingertips, it's hard to make an audience suspend its sense of disbelief if the narrative can't support the fantasy or the fantasy can't support the narrative. Writing, after all, requires a kind of structure which dreams notoriously lack. The promotional blurb for David Caggiano's Dream Jockeys states that:
"On the run from life with the mob, Michael Conti finds himself tormented by waking dreams -- and sleepwalking as a ghostly street magician. Is he going mad? Is he possessed? Desperate, he turns to Rachel (a Marin County Dream Guide with five-star Yelp reviews). As a couple of deranged hit men from his past close in, Michael must find a way to cheat death itself."
David Caggiano performing Dream Jockeys

Directed by Mark Kenward, the performance that I attended of Caggiano's new monologue felt like a crash landing that kept passing through a series of green spotlights as it bumped and lurched down an ill-fated runway. Early on, Caggiano attempted to inform his audience about the nature of lucid dreaming. But when reality got in the way, his dreams pretty much flew out the window.

As can happen when an artist is breaking in new material, Caggiano went up on his lines several times during the performance I attended (an unfortunate occupational hazard that can easily shatter any illusions of participating in a dream). He also had quite a bit of trouble keeping his narrative on track due to structural problems. Unfortunately, practical demons and characters from one's dreams don't always take well to the structure required to sustain an hour-long monologue.

While I had enjoyed Caggiano's previous monologue (Jurassic Ark), it quickly became apparent that Dream Jockeys needs a lot more work in order to take wing. What Caggiano is attempting to do resembles some of Christopher Moore's work in his more fantastical novels such as Island of the Sequined Love Nun, Lamb (The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal), and Sacre Bleu. In its current form, Caggiano's writing and performance are not strong enough -- and lack sufficient confidence in the material -- to sustain Dream Jockeys for a solid 60 minutes.

* * * * * * * * *
First performed sometime around 1595-1596, William Shakespeare's classic comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, has been studied by high school students and performed by theatre companies all over the world. In 1787, the British astronomer, William Herschel, gave two of the moons circling the planet Uranus the names Oberon and Titania in honor of Shakespeare's characters.

Shakespeare's much beloved play has been adapted for the operatic stage by Benjamin Britten and inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose music which, in turn, led George Balanchine to create his first full-length ballet (Midsummer Night's Dream) in 1962 and Frederick Ashton to choreograph The Dream in 1964. Numerous adaptations of the Bard's masterpiece have been made for film and television. As it nears the 420th anniversary of its world premiere, it should be pretty obvious that this show's got legs.

Lysander (Dan Clegg) with Hermia (Tristan Cunningham)
in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although it's easy to think one 'knows" A Midsummer Night's Dream pretty well, it's just as easy to be completely gobsmacked when someone does a spectacular job of staging Shakespeare's romantic comedy with guts, gusto, and a wealth of dramatic invention. When spirits can rise above the stage floor and soar through the air (thanks to some inventive choreography); when actors re-purpose fresh mud in strangely appealing ways, and when the very life blood of a production can be felt coursing through an open air theatre then, as marketing execs are wont to say, there's "something special in the air."

Titania (Erika Chong Shuch) falls in love with Bottom (Margo Hall)
in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The California Shakespeare Theater recently offered a thrilling new staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by the supremely talented Shana Cooper -- with additional movement by Erika Chong Shuch (who appears as Titania and Hippolyta) and fight direction by Dave Maier -- that blows away all previous memories of Shakespeare's play. Using Nina Ball's deceptively simple unit set, Katherine O'Neill's costumes, and Burke Brown's stunning lighting, this is the kind of production which demands that an audience embrace it on its own terms. As well they should.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the production's felicitous use of nontraditional casting. Born in Kuwait City, the talented Japanese-American actor, Daisuke Tsuji (who was recently seen in A.C.T.'s production of The Orphan of Zao), does double duty as a masculine Theseus and an athletic Oberon (King of the Fairies).

Oberon (Daisuke Tsuji) and Titania (Erika Chong Shuch) in
A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

With such notable Bay area artists as James Carpenter, Catherine Castellanos, Craig Marker, Parker Murphy, and Liam Vincent in supporting roles, Margo Hall tackles Bottom -- the "rude mechanical" who is transformed into an ass blessed with a brazen and braying bravado -- and, in doing so, boosts her much-lauded versatility to new heights.

Margo Hall transitioning into Bottom at California Shakespeare Theater

One could hardly hope for a pair of more lovesick macho fools than Dan Clegg's rowdy Lysander and Nicholas Pelczar's desperate Demetrius. The exquisite Tristan Cunningham appears as Hermia opposite Lauren English's hungry for love, but woefully (and frequently) jilted Helena.

Helena (Lauren English) is tormented by Demetrius
(Nicholas Pelczar) and Lysander (Dan Clegg) in 
A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With such an abundance of theatrical magic, and lovers racing hither and thither, the CalShakes production is blessed by the presence of Danny Scheie. Well established in theatrical circles as a gifted clown, Scheie's Puck is far from a youthful sprite.  If there is such a thing as a sadder-but-wiser fairy, Scheie's crisp elocution and deliciously ironic inflections occasionally lock forces with a slow burn that could make Bea Arthur jealous.

Daisuke Tsuji (Oberon) and Danny Scheie (Puck) in
A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

More than many other productions, Shana Cooper's staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream is driven -- and riven -- by hot-blooded passion. Whether it be the initial infatuation of young lovers, the jealousy of a wounded ego, or the misplaced rapture of a drugged queen who has taken an exotic young boy under her wing, Cooper's interpretation of Shakespeare's text avoids the usual costume clich├ęs and, instead, gets down and dirty in confronting the complex challenges and caustic complications of love. As Cooper explains:
"With Dream, Shakespeare began his profound exploration of the metaphysical; the human world of Dream appears to be but the surface of an unseen world that affects and often times overrules the lives of those on Earth.  We might say that this unseen world, the world of fairies and dreams, is what we usually call the unconscious.  It seems fitting, after all, that the metaphor for this place of unconscious and the imagination is the woods, a wild, untamed landscape that is full of mystery, fantasy, and danger."

Puck (Danny Scheie), Oberon (Daisuke Tsuji, Hermia (Tristan
Cunningham), and Demetrius (Nicholas Pelczar) in a scene from
A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

This is that rare production -- that is very much the stuff of which dreams are made -- which brings major magic to a drug-addled night of fun and games in he forest outside Athens. Performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream continue through September 28 at the Bruns Outdoor Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here to order tickets).