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A Newly Imagined Dream

 

Umberger Plucks Puck from the Vine

Often during his tenure as Charlotte Rep's artistic director, Steve Umberger cultivated a loyal local audience for fledgling comedies and dramas, putting up works-in-progress in rudimentary reading-stage productions. Now at Theatre Charlotte, Umberger is engaged in an altogether different kind of cultivation. He's taking a familiar favorite, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, experimenting with an intriguing new production concept, and putting it onstage for the first time at the Queens Road barn.

There's nothing rudimentary about production values. Umberger has drawn upon four aces to work his unique magic. Composer Fred Story contributes a delicate, lyrical score. Bob Croghan creates coordinated costumes: patches for the mechanicals, purple for the fairies, and three sets of suits for the three Athenian couples. The lovebirds may not be one flesh, but they're always one fabric.

The spare Croghan/Umberger set design is steeply raked and luxuriously draped. Lighting designer Eric Winkenwerder projects a huge glowing moon onto the rear curtain to preside over the lunacy and casts a bosky silhouette onto the forest floor. Animating the primal scene, choreographer Ron Chisholm links up with a bevy of young gymnasts and dancers to create the most lithe and winsome corps of fairies you'll ever see.

All of this is an enticing backdrop for Umberger's radically reimagined Puck, brought thrillingly to life by Cirque du Soleil spellbinder Karl Baumann. Baumann's frau, Sophia Sukala, has designed a hooded skin-tight outfit that turns the diminutive performer into the essence of impish mischief. Some of Shakespeare's familiar couplets get mangled by the Austrian's accent, but the damage is offset by the extra distance Baumann brings to Puck's wonder at the foolishness of mortals.

And of course, when the man can speak calmly while standing on just one hand -- horizontally! -- you'll find that Baumann has no trouble capturing your attention. Each of his entrances and exits is a fresh wonder of acrobatic surprise. And when he climbs the thick vine dangling centerstage by the light of the moon, the possibilities multiply.

Baumann's physicality echoes beyond the woodland fairies. Umberger has the young lovers in a fiercely funny slapstick mode during their many scrapes and quarrels. The women, Jessica Kier Cowart as twiggy Helena and Tabitha Knox as the compact Hermia, are nicely contrasted. James Yost as Demetrius and newcomer Peter Okkerse as Lysander are even better as the rival lovers, flipping from rapture to cruelty to hostility to merriment in a heartbeat.

The only rough edges are the royals and the rustics. Barry Delaney, as Theseus and Oberon, takes all evening loosening his wooden demeanor but never quite relaxes into kingly power. Iesha Hoffman as his consorts, Hippolyta and Titania, never grants herself sufficient glamour and vanity.

TC newcomer Val Molkenbuhr as Peter Quince and Bob Tully as Frances Flute (and bearded Thisbe) are the bright spots among the mechanicals. But among all the actors I've seen as Bottom, the straining Peter Jacobus sank quickly to the bottom.

You won't find "all is mended" if you sample Midsummer during the final two weeks of its Theatre Charlotte run. But Puck's farewell line could apply when Umberger directs this comedy in High Point for NC Shakespeare Festival beginning September 5. Every blemish can be easily mended if the marvelous Baumann remains in the mix.

After becoming acquaintedwith Lee Blessing's Eleemosynary through a 1990 Charlotte Rep production, I must admit that I wasn't eager to renew my acquaintance with the dark, delicate comedy at SPAC. But BareBones Theatre Group director Dana Childs seems to have a better feel for the three generations of Wesbrook women who are the entire cast -- and why we should find them appealing.

So Echo's final desperate plea for love from her mother detonates with a new breathtaking impact. And with actresses less polished and experienced than Rep's, the whole BareBones effort soars far above mere whimsy and braininess.

Camille Dewing, the most self-assured of the trio, is the intrepid researcher Artie (short for Artemis). She rebels against the spacey eccentricities of her mother by barricading herself in extreme rationality, fleeing both her mother and daughter for the certainties of science. I mostly hate her, but Dewing makes reclamation seem possible.

As Dorothea, Linda Fisher captures the free-spirited matriarch's kindliness and bossiness simultaneously, tethering both to a sunny crusading zeal. Caroline Fisher, as spelling bee champ Echo, still backs into her blocking spots like a neophyte, but her youth and awkwardness ultimately come across as assets, particularly in her climactic monologue.

With Sandra Gray's artwork on the floor of the stage, Corin Beam's empathetic live musical accompaniment, and SPAC's funky theater space, I actually wished I could spend more than 75 minutes with the Wesbrooks. Quite a pleasant surprise.

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