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Rice Stages its A Midsummer Night's Dream Outdoors on Campus to Good Effect

The set-up:

Rice University unleashes its drama department on William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, probably Shakespeare's most produced play, a delightful comedy set largely in a forest, dealing with young love in its various forms. Its director, Christina Keefe, matches the production perfectly to the romantic mood by staging it outdoors, setting the forest scenes under a giant oak tree, and the court scenes in front of the stone arches and balustrades of the Founder's Court. Seldom has the bard been better served by great scenic design.

The execution:

There is a generation gap in the characters at court, with Theseus, Duke of Athens (TC Weinlandt) and his fiancee Hippolyta (Rachel Buissereth) representing mature authority, with good judgment, and able to evolve. There are four young romantics: Hermia (Katherine Gunn) wants to marry Lysander (Ian L. Bott), against her father's wishes, and Helena (Yena Han) is desperate to land Demetrius (Jake Hassel) though he spurns her. The fight between the two women, with the men intervening, is brilliantly staged, and one of the funniest scenes I've ever savored, thanks to director Keefe's wit and the actors' talent and enthusiasm.

There is a subplot of a play-within- a-play, performed by the deliberately worst thespians Shakespeare's imagination could conjure up, as they perform the tragedy "Pyramus and Thisbe" with comic ferocity. The most over-eager of these actors is Bottom (Carter Spires), who tries the patience of the leader of the troupe Peter Quince (Omar Tariq). I especially enjoyed Snout (Mike Schubert), compelled to play a wall, who found its comedic soul, and Bryce Willey as Flute, compelled to play Thisbe in an increasingly higher voice. Bottom is transformed by magic into an ass, at least his head is, and Spires is excellent in capturing the smug self-assurance of the vain.

The "adults" in the forest are Titania (Susannah M. Eig) and Oberon (Michael Hollis), queen and king of the fairies, who are separated by a quarrel, and both actors deliver the authority that fits their status. There are other characters as well, often entertainingly acted, but the outstanding performance is that Daniel Burns as Puck, mischievous servant to Oberon. Burns captures the spirit of impish glee, and fake servility, as at Oberon's behest he wreaks havoc on relationships with a magic potion. Burns moves like a dancer, using gymnastic skill to make an entrance or exit an event; he is lavishly entertaining, creating a brilliant and memorable character, and commanding the stage like a Shakespearean veteran.

The opening court scenes are impressive because of the stone arches, though not all voices carried against the wind. But we quickly moved to the huge oak tree, most fittingly, as a character says: "at the Duke's oak we meet". Here the intimacy of the seating makes it seem, delightfully, like theater-in-your-living-room. The set by Mark Krouskop adds stylized trees on fabrics, and multi-tiered levels, but the multi-branched tree covers the stage like a canopy of splendor, lit dramatically by Dustin Tannahill. The sound by Andrew Harper even adds zest to the strewing of the magic potion, and the costumes by Clair Hummel are varied, interesting and colorful, giving each wearer a separate personality. The entire production is obviously a labor of love, and is thoroughly endearing as well as professional.

There are lapses - some of the poetry is raced past too swiftly, and "who will not trade a raven for a dove?" is a rhetorical question, not a statement. Yet the verbal lapses matter less here than in other plays by Shakespeare, as this is an action-filled romantic romp more than a psychological study, though scholars may disagree.

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Director Keefe and the talented cast of Rice undergraduates understand fully the humor and charm of this pastoral masterwork, aware that it is deliberately frivolous and intended to be as comic as vaudeville, with dignity thrown to the winds. The result is hilarity, and this production delivers that in spades.

There is limited seating, and this is a limited engagement. It is outdoors, so dress warmly or bring a blanket, and a cushion to sit on might be useful as well. The production is free, but the joy is priceless.

The verdict:

Rice University finds the soul and wit of one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies, in an extravagant and delightful production that captivates with humor as it explores and explodes the vagaries of relationships. If you possibly can, see it. A Midsummer Night's Dream continues through November 9 at Founder's Court, Rice U., 6100 Main St., enter Portal Two. For information, call 713-348-7529 or contact www.theatre.rice.edu.

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