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Photograph by Dixie Sheridan

Walking Shadows: Anne Bogart (foreground) rehearses 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' with (from left) Chris Wells, Barney O'Hanlon and Karenjune Sanchez.

Dreaming Of the Bard

The SITI Company sprinkles modernist dreams on Shakespeare's 'Midsummer Night's Dream' at SJ Rep

By Marianne Messina

FISTS CLENCHED, muscles taut, arms and raised legs forming perfect square angles, members of the SITI acting troupe advance in lock step like a phalanx of robotic soldiers. For the SITI Company, this uncompromising warm-up exercise is a day at the office. Together with the San Jose Repertory Theatre, SITI and its award-winning director, Anne Bogart, are about to mount a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. And Bogart starts every one of the SITI Company's eight-hour-plus rehearsal days with this half-hour of "training."

"It seems kind of insane to me," Bogart says, "that actors are the only artists of all the arts who graduate from school and then don't keep training--a singer would never not do their scales."

During their stilted march, the actors call out Macbeth's famed speech at regular intervals: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more." Their mechanical, unison voices project power and menace. And as they conclude their fearsome charade, one can't miss the irony: "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." This brush with the absurd requires from the actors what Bogart might see as heroic strength, the likes of which underlie all vital performance. In this case, it's the strength to subject oneself to possible embarrassment. "To be completely committed to something is really embarrassing; you look like an idiot." (And dare to signify nothing.) "But all really great art is on the verge of being really dumb," Bogart claims. "I just think that unless your work embarrasses you, it probably is no good."

When Bogart thinks of producing A Midsummer Night's Dream for modern audiences, she can easily tick off other embarrassments to overcome. "In this culture, it's embarrassing to be romantic because we live in a cynical time."

The play includes four sets of lovers and plenty of obstacles. "To show intense emotion is embarrassing because we live in a cool time." A Midsummer Night's Dream also presents the modern-day director with the prickly challenge of creating fairies. There's the Fairy King and Queen, Oberon and Titania, and the infamous fairy prankster, Puck. "Fairies," Bogart muses. "How do you do a fairy? I mean, what is a fairy?"

In Bogart's production, the fairy question is complicated by eight actors having to cover 20-some roles. Bogart solved this nightmarish costuming challenge by deciding that the characters would simply shape-shift before the audience's eyes. Bogart is pleased with how the actors have manifested shape-shifting. "It's magic," she asserts.

Bogart considers her role as director more like that of a prime mover than a controller. For example, her original conception for A Midsummer's Night Dream placed it in the Depression era and in a stark, Dust Bowl landscape reminiscent of The Grapes of Wrath. But once she sets things in motion, she stands back and lets the actors' own processes take over. She'll input and observe from a frame of mind she calls "vigilant."

This vigilance ultimately brought her to understand fairykind. She says the concept came to her while watching the actors evolve into their fairy roles. "I think what I've learned is that when we go to sleep we all become fairies. That we lose the limitations of the body. So fairy is the other side of the day. That's what I've learned in rehearsal."

Bogart has touted San Jose Rep as one of the best regional theaters in the country, partly because of Timothy Near's artistic direction and partly because of the performance space itself. "The outside is a modernist box," says Bogart, "and the inside is a Renaissance jewel." Perhaps in presenting this Renaissance world of dreams for theatergoers encased by modernist conceptual walls, Bogart is offering a small gem of her own.

A Midsummer Night's Dream previews Jan. 24-29 and runs Jan. 30-Feb. 22 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $18-$52. (408.367.7255; www.sjrep.com)

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From the January 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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