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The course of true love never did run smooth - 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

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The course of true love never did run smooth - 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (Photo courtesy of University of Maine School of Performing Arts/Matt Michaud)

ORONO – A beloved comedic classic is springing (or summering) to life at the University of Maine.

UMaine’s School of Performing Arts is presenting their production of William Shakespeare’s beloved “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Directed by Marcia Joy Douglas, the play runs through Nov. 19 at UMaine’s Hauck Auditorium.

“Midsummer” is perhaps the most famous of Shakespeare’s comedies – one could argue for “The Taming of the Shrew” or “Much Ado about Nothing” or (insert your favorite here), but to my mind “Midsummer” reigns supreme. And there’s something particularly moving about watching this story of fairies and young lovers and rude artisans being brought to life by college students. Douglas has made some unconventional casting decisions and a few (well-chosen) cuts, but it’s the passion and vigor of the youthful ensemble that really capture the attention.

For those who somehow don’t know: young lovers Lysander (Reed Davis) and Hermia (Isabella Etro) wish to be together, but Hermia’s mother Egea (Taylor Cronin) has promised her to Demetrius (Jacob Siegel). Meanwhile, the lovely Helena (Katie Dube) is in love with Demetrius, who spurns her in favor of Hermia. Theseus (Micah Valliere), ruler of Athens, upholds Egea’s will, leaving Lysander and Hermia no choice but to run away together. Demetrius pursues them while himself being pursued by Helena.

In honor of Theseus’s upcoming nuptials to the Amazon Hippolyta (Nicole Felix), a group of working-class fellows are attempting to put together a play. However, company manager and playwright Peter Quince (Owen Sinclair) rapidly finds himself losing control of these men to the charismatic weaver Nick Bottom (Noah Lovejoy). The show quickly spins and blurs out of Quince’s hands, becoming both far less and far more than what could be contained in a mere script.

The young lovers and the players soon find themselves in the midst of mischief. Oberon (Curran Grant) and Titania (Natalie Lisnet), the fairy king and queen, are at odds, resulting in all manner of madness - most of it initiated by Oberon’s knavish servant(s) Puck (Alan Liam Estes & Elizabeth Ayotte) alongside an army of willing nymphs. Love potions and other madcap magical acts ensue, with massive confusion about who loves whom and why.

Whether it’s the ever-shifting sides of the lovers’ love … rhombus or the enchanted passion of Titania for the once-figuratively-now-literally asinine Bottom, the central conceit of “Midsummer” remains constant – the power of love is a curious thing (as the noted philosopher H. Lewis so eloquently put it).

The lovers sit at the center of the story, the fulcrum upon which the rest of the narrative rises, falls and pivots. It’s a solid group here – Davis and Siegel do good work in capturing the single-minded devotion and machismo-measuring attitude that embodies Lysander and Demetrius. Dube brings Helena alive with a wonderfully sharp wit; she has a grasp of Shakespeare’s language that belies her youth. And Etro is utterly fearless as Hermia, hurling herself around the stage with pinpoint slapstick accuracy.

The dual-Puck conceit is an interesting gambit – one that could have been insufferable if poorly executed. Estes and Ayotte handle it with nimble aplomb, gamboling and skipping across the stage. They mirror one another’s energy and finish one another’s sentences – they mesh perfectly in bringing the singular character of Puck to life. Lisnet is magnetic as fairy queen Titania, bringing forth a fiery grace from every word and movement; Grant’s scheming Oberon is suitably smug and self-possessed, oozing arrogance.

Bottom is one of the most challenging comedic roles in Shakespeare – a daunting undertaking for any actor, let alone a college student. Lovejoy acquits himself well; his Bottom has a broad charm and a winking likeability. Scenery chewing is a vital component, as well; Lovejoy gnaws away with glee. His fellow mechanicals form a nice ensemble-within-the-ensemble – Sinclair is quite good, as are Cain Drouin, Callaghan Carter, Libbey Masse and Colleen Comeau. Valliere, Felix and Cronin do yeoman’s work as Theseus, Hippolyta and Egea; the royals can come off as thankless parts, but not in this case – the performances feel genuine and integral.

And I would be remiss if I failed to note the wonderfully synchronized performance put forth by the fairy cohort – Ali Eaton, Anna Giroux, Katie Golias, Alissa Johnson, Rose Michelson, Elijah McTiernan, Mackenzie Peacock (who doubles as a member of Theseus’s court) and Katie Spagnolo. This group operates in unison throughout, a swarming hive of sorts, speaking and moving in tandem. Obviously, it’s a concept that needs excellent execution to work. It works.

The audience is seated on risers that sit on the Hauck stage; the result is a more intimate space with eyes on three sides. This lends an added closeness to the proceedings while also increasing flexibility with regards to stage movement – the actors enter and exit from all sides, creating a sense of being surrounded by the word of the play. The high-energy intimacy built by Douglas and her cast creates a controlled chaos that is both frenetic and precise. As for the movement, both choreographer Nicole Felix and stunt coordinator/fight director Andrew Silver set things in motion with style and impressive grace.

Dan Bilodeau’s set design embraces that notion of intimacy, using ramps, steps, platforms and curtains to develop distinct playing spaces that are both simple and effective. Those distinctions are amplified by JP Ankrom’s lighting design. Michelle Handley’s costumes are apt and elegant, adding another key layer to the aesthetic. The sound plot – co-designed by Megan Bergeron and Felix – interweaves nicely into the proceedings.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is particularly beloved for a reason. It is sweet and smart and funny and weird – perfect fodder for a group of young, eager talents ready to lay bare their theatrical passions on the stage. Seeing such a tight ensemble bring to life such a delightful show makes for a wonderful and worthwhile theatrical experience.

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