Titania (Amy Lipscomb) falls for Bottom (Jason Kanda) in Hawaii Shakespeare Festival's presentation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

‘Midsummer’ ignites
Bard’s hip,
bawdy side

There is a very thin, very gray line separating crisp physical comedy from sophomoric smut. Director Harry Wong III and a talented cast walk the line perfectly in the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The play seems to be one of the frequently performed Shakespearean comedies, but Wong and company approach the familiar story with such zest that it is a delight to see again.

'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Presented by the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival:

Where: Ernst Lab Theatre, UH-Manoa

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, and 3:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $18 general, $16 seniors and military, $14 group rate for 10 or more, and $10 students

Call: 550-8457 or go to www.hawaiishakes.com

No matter how stuffy and old-fashioned Shakespeare might seem when forced upon high school students as "great literature," or when done badly onstage, he was writing for a pop audience that was as interested in sex and appreciative of broad comedy as today's mainstream film and television audiences. Those elements are tapped to the fullest.

Take Reb Beau Allen's performance as Puck, often played as a mischievous imp. Allen portrays him as an athletic, knife-wielding thug with a bad attitude and sexual interest in a male Fairie. Is Puck aggressive because his lord, the almighty Oberon, King of the Fairies, periodically humiliates him? Or does Oberon humiliate Puck to keep him somewhat humble?

Michael Gaba (Oberon) appears even bigger, darker and more malevolent than Puck. The story's alpha male not only keeps Puck in line, but also punishes his consort, Titania (Annie Lipscomb), when she refuses to surrender a child she has adopted.

Costume and makeup give Allen and Gaba a goth vampirish appearance. Lipscomb has a similar gothic look that sets her apart from the quartet of fairie servants who prove unable to protect Titania from Oberon's revenge.

In short, this isn't the traditional spin on the story.

The actors utilize body language, facial expressions, throw-away gestures and tight blocking and choreography to build on the script's comic material. The fight choreography is essential in depicting the fighters as capable combatants or comically inept amateurs. Wong adds visual comedy in calculating where various characters are going to fall, sprawl, lie or squat.

Most of the physical bits last just enough for the audience to catch them. The one exception is when Lipscomb caresses Jason Kanda's (Bottom's) backside as he lies sprawled across her, his backside to the audience.

Kanda does an outstanding job with the plum role of the egotistical amateur actor whom Puck changes into an enchanted ass-headed humanoid as part of Oberon's revenge on Titania. Bottom has several great scenes. Kanda does justice to them all.

Kanda is also a fine team player working with the other "Mechanicals" -- Britton Adams (Starveling), Gerald Altweis (Peter Quince), Stu Hirayama (Snug), Sev Palmer (Flute) and Junior Tesoro (Snout). The sextet's impact is reduced by comic content elsewhere, but they're still able to make the Mechanicals' hilariously bad production of "Pyramus and Thisbe" a comic highlight.

Joanne Sotomura stands out elsewhere with her quirky and beautifully detailed comic portrayal of Helena, a victim of unrequited love, in the third of the three interlocking plots. Helena loves Demetrius, who loves her best friend, Hermia, who in turn prefers death to marrying anyone but Lysander. Sotomura embellishes her lines in a way that makes her the comic spark plug of the romantic quadrilateral.

Kathy Hunter (Hermia), Chi Ho Law (Demetrius) and Mathias Maas (Lysander) mesh smoothly in making the foursome's misadventures in the forest as entertaining as those of Bottom and his fellow Mechanicals.

Hunter, Law, Maas and Sotomura are well matched for their roles' physical demands. The height difference between Sotomura and Hunter is not as significant as it could be, but their battle royale is still the mother of all comic cat fights. Hunter also gives a nuanced performance in the scene where Hermia tells Lysander not to presume to sleep too close to her.

SHAKESPEARE EVIDENTLY believed that the circumstances of the marriage between the Duke of Athens and the Queen of the Amazons weren't important enough to pursue. With Daniel Kunkel as Duke Theseus and Brooke Jones as his bride-to-be, Theseus' interest in Hippolyta remains no more than a plot requirement.

Wong follows fellow festival director R. Kevin Doyle in changing the gender of the character to accommodate an actor. Egeus, the unyielding father whose ultimatum sends his daughter, Hermia, running for the woods with Lysander, is now Egea, Hermia's mother, so that Jan McGrath looks right in the role.

Lipscomb and Christy Hauptman share credit for the fairies' dance choreography. Hauptman also gets credit as costume designer for the grim gothic look that sets Oberon, Titania and Puck apart from the others.

Theater fans who don't enjoy audience participation are advised that the cast members spend at least 10 minutes interacting with audience members before the play starts -- it seemed much longer last Sunday. Those who like getting up close and personal with the actors can spend intermission dancing to vintage disco hits with the Fairies onstage.

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