Shakespeare Just Off the Alley

Theatre Gigante’s update of Midsummer Night’s Dream lacks verve.

By - May 13th, 2014 12:48 pm

MIDSUMMER IN MIDWINTERRiffs on Shakespeare have long attracted the artistic directors of Theatre Gigante, husband and wife Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson. Their mix of actors, dancers, music and impish movement has become a hallmark they’re taking into a wonderful new space — the intimate, comfortable, stripped-down theater in the just opened UWM Peck School of Arts addition off an alley on Kenilworth between Prospect and Farwell avenues on Milwaukee’s East Side.

(I can give firsthand evidence of that enduring fascination with Shakespeare because two decades ago, after Anderson established shop in Milwaukee as a performance artist, one of my family members was involved in his take on Romeo and Juliet with the balcony scene staged in the lobby of the Pabst Theater for its 100th anniversary. )

Then as now, Shakespeare’s plays are both an attractive model and a constantly dangerous territory of familiarity and high artistry to play with. The problems strike hard in Midsummer in Midwinter, an almost sitcom modernization, tongue in cheek, of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where indie pop songs drive the plot as Puck texts the developments on a smart phone. It is running through May 17.

The soaring poetry and sylvan glade romps are selectively woven in and commented on as four couples — two older, one young and one fairyland –tackle contemporary passion and broken marriage in an enchanted setting. Actual dialog from the original is borrowed and changed, and these exist in both intended and often troubling quality contrast to the interpolated domestic clichés in the Theatre Gigante variation.

Shakespeare begins most plays with his best and most arresting foot forward, so it’s no accident that “Midsummer in Midwinter” doesn’t start with the story but with the modern songs, performed notably by Amanda Huff and Daniel Mitchell, and the pulsating yet melodic score of Frank Pahl. They are hypnotic as is the acrobatic dancing of Edwin Olvera and Jessie Mae Scibek as Mustardseed and Peaseblossom (as they are named in the program) – directed by Kralj, herself a noted dancer as her fevered comic orgasmic interlude in the story demonstrates. The dancers’ romantic entanglements in the air and on the floor are loosely worked into the plot to provide an obvious but quite attractive distraction.

Where the production staggers is where it should thrive – in actual storytelling. What should be a farcical and fey commentary on the original play and modern marriage lacks the vaudevillian flexibility, the dialog inventiveness that could justify the mix-ups and bickering tone. A cartoon balloon that should rise in amusement often sags clumsily back to earth.

Some capable actors – another married couple, Deborah Clifton and John Kishline – try to have fun substituting rapid movement and strong delivery. But the material is too uneven to pull off though polish occasionally shines through. Anderson and Kralj also perform and are surprising wooden in outbursts that require full character commitment.

As the young couple of the piece, Evan James Koepnich has a natural ease of delivery and enthusiasm for young romance, while the object of his attraction, Megan Kaminsky, injures her appeal with stridency. And Molly Corkins’ Puck comes off more snarky than comedic, though I would blame the difficulties on the script more than the actress.

There is something quite appealing about the quality of talents Theatre Gigante can bring together while combining cutting-edge music and movement. But this effort is simply not tight enough or smart enough to keep the idiosyncrasy afloat.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.

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