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Photograph by Tom Chargin

Puck of the Draw: (l. to r.) Puck (Barney O'Hanlon, left) and Mustardseed (Kelly Maurer, right) bend to their parts in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

Stuff of Dreams

The SITI Company's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' has a rhythm all its own

By Marianne Messina

LOOK PAST the surface and listen as you would to a beguiling melody on the very edge of hearing." It's the advice of a dream-weaving fairy archetype called the Piper from Brian Froud's The Faery Oracles, but it might just as well be the prologue to the SITI Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, currently running at San Jose Repertory Theatre. SITI's T. Griffin has designed sound that always seems "a melody on the edge of hearing." During a recent production, it was so subtle, at times, you'd find yourself asking, "Was that a sound effect or did someone cough?"

But a more remarkable hidden melody is the way the SITI company, which puts a premium on expressive use of body language, sets up a palpable subaudio cadence with its movements. Early on, as the fairy trickster Puck (Barney O'Hanlon) slowly circles the human lovers, he gives the impression of a larger, slower gear circling a faster, smaller one--fairy time operating against the different speed and rhythm of human time. The idea of these perceptual speed differentials is underscored when the red-robed fairy queen Titania (Ellen Lauren) rides in slow-motion atop the moving turntable of a large Victrola (which would be rotating at a crisp 78 rpm, human time). The image creates a forlorn, delicate, visual moment.

Since each actor (except O'Hanlon) plays both a fairy and a human in this tale of confused lovers, it's almost a given that award-winning director Anne Bogart would offer a stylized movement to connote fairyness. Actually, it comes through more like centaur or faun--you may never see the "skipping" fairies so hobbled and halting, tiptoeing around in cryptic hiccups.

As to the text, basically, you can leave your compulsion for things literal at home. This would be the "look past the surface" part of the Piper's advice, because this production seems to disregard text when convenient. For example, when we hear that we're "near the cradle of the fairy queen," the "cradled" fairy queen is in fact sprawled out on a bare, rather cold-looking, reflective floor. Nor does the SITI company go out of its way to illuminate textual complexities-- though feminists will laugh great bellies of righteousness at Kelly Maurer's take on love-struck Helena's "I am your spaniel" speech. At many junctures Shakespeare's language simply outmaneuvers the speakers.

Toward the end of the production, however, with the comedy skit (Pyramus and Thisbe) and a sort of free-movement interlude, you can almost hear the company expelling a held breath, "hhaaaa!" (Titania's signature call) at being liberated from textual intricacies. For whatever reason, things suddenly come together. Puck's essence is never so clear as during his epilogue when he lets the audience in on his playfulness. And we suddenly realize that Titania's "hhaaaa!" has been imprinted on us like a good product slogan. The play within the play was a riot, and Chris Spencer Wells' clever asslike sounds and movements (as Bottom turned into a donkey), strike a giddy balance between hilarious and hideous. A haunting and beautifully rendered ensemble song (written by T. Griffin and including O'Hanlon on violin and Lauren on toy piano) pulls together the "beguiling melody" of Bogart's vision--that the rich plasma of dreams belongs to the "darkling" side of life. And the subaudio pulse of the company's energy manifests in the final song as a powerful stomping of feet. If you've ever felt Shakespeare cannot be enjoyed without trudging through 16th-century verbiage, The SITI Company's full-bodied approach to A Midsummer Night's Dream might just change your mind.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, a SITI Company production, plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm (plus noon show Feb. 11), Saturday at 3 and 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm (plus 7pm shows Feb. 15-22) through Feb. 22 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $18-$52. (408.367.725)

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From the February 5-11, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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