Photo above courtesy of “A Midsummer Night’s Daydream.” Justin Barbin Photography.
Lookingglass’ David Catlin, who took
the Alliance’s Moby Dick to acrobatic heights in 2016,
this time puts his twist on Shakespeare’s giddy lovefest.
The Alliance Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs Sept. 5-Oct. 21 at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, 1345 Piedmont Ave. NE. Details, tickets HERE or at 404.733.5000. Weather cancellation policy HERE. Your ticket includes Garden admission any time the day of the show (but no leaving and re-entering). Longleaf restaurant on-site is open for dinner or “grab-and-go” service. Dinner reservations recommended HERE. Garden details HERE or at 404.876.5859. Recommended for age 8 and up.
AS THE THICK HEAT of August fades and September’s slip into October promises sweeter night air, the place to be (or not to be) is the southeastern pocket of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, where A Midsummer Night’s Dream moves us into the Alliance Theatre’s 50th anniversary season.
“The course of true love never did run smooth,” says Lysander, who’s in love with Hermia in Shakespeare’s saucy 16th-century romp.
The romantic farce “celebrates the madness and irrationality of love,” says David Catlin, who’s back at the Alliance to direct this twisty remix of the bard’s popular comedy.
Exactly how twisty?
For starters, Catlin is the same guy who sent a giant whale soaring over Alliance audiences in 2016 with an acrobatic reimagining of Moby Dick. A founding artist with Chicago’s creative Lookingglass Theatre, Catlin is pulled toward athletic, collaborative theater. (He’s also an actor, playwright, artistic associate with Chicago’s Actors Gymnasium and a lecturer at Northwestern University.)
Lookingglass Alice (based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and The Student Prince are two other classics from which Catlin has spun unexpected theatrical spectacles. (After Midsummer, he’ll concoct a new Frankenstein for Lookingglass.)
His Midsummer, staged outdoors in the 1.5-acre Skyline Garden, is rooted in A Midsummer Night’s Daydream, a “wild reimagining” that Catlin directed at Northwestern last year.
In that 90-minute version (much abbreviated from the original text), eight students handled multiple roles. For the Alliance, Catlin has pared the cast to six: familiar Alliance faces Devon Hales, Joe Knezevich and Courtney Patterson, plus visiting artists Ericka Ratcliff, Adeoye Mabogunje and Travis Turner.
Catlin settled on the Skyline Garden — with its stately covered patio and aquatic plant pond — after surveying his outdoor possibilities. He saw the pond, 61 feet in diameter, as an ideal spot for a stage with seating for 300. Kat Conley’s scenic design called for a platform to be built over the existing pond, then adding a shallow pond atop the platform and many “lily pad platforms.”
This world-premiere adaptation blends dance, music, circus arts and familiar bits from other Shakespeare plays. The six actors will be gardeners (with such names as Petunia Prune and Clay Grout) called upon to perform a play within the play — just as Bottom the weaver and five others do in the original Midsummer.
Catlin has encouraged the actors to provide ideas. That’s key to his directing strategy and shaping the final product.
“I think of myself as a collaborative creator,” Catlin says. “I like responding to whoever is in the room. It’s important that the vision of the piece is shared by everybody. In an ideal world, everyone is contributing their own skills, ideas and unique humor to make the production better. Maybe they’re adding what they love or fear or think about, maybe they’re giving us something more to think about.”
But six actors taking on a Shakespeare comedy that usually features a cast of 25 or more? And the five-act Midsummer slashed to 90 minutes with no intermission?
“Something about the impossibility of the task appeals to me,” Catlin says. It “demands that we get more creative and demands a high level of imaginative thinking from me, the actors and the audience.”
In his Moby Dick, for example, a flash of a moment late in the show caused some patrons to shriek, while others struggled to make sense of what had happened. “You either believed that an 80-ton whale swam over your head, or maybe you just saw it as a big sheet,” Catlin says.
“Our task as theater makers is to give the audience just enough so they can paint the rest of it with their imaginations.”
“For me, that’s the heart of it: a collaborative creation from a group of people who tell a story so that the audience sees it anew. Hopefully it will touch you in a different way.”
How different? You’re advised to sit back and fret not. Don’t ponder the plot. Lose yourself in the creative spirit and delicious poetry of the language. This isn’t one of those Shakespeare plays meant to tax the brain.
It is the one in which a gaggle of amateur actors (here, gardeners), rehearse a play to perform in honor of the Duke of Athens’ marriage to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazon. There’s also a spat between Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, that sets off all sorts of mischief.
It’s also the play in which magic flower juice, when placed on the eyes of someone sleeping, causes that person to love the very first being he or she sees upon awakening: “Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull, / On meddling monkey, or on busy ape.”
Got that? No worries. It matters not. As Catlin says: “It’s all wonderful nonsense.”