Phoenix Theatre’s Shakespeare in N.Y. rocks

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Where: Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria

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When: To Nov. 22

Rating: 3 1/2 stars (out of five)

You know you’re not in ancient Athens anymore when everyone boogies to the Village People’s YMCA (complete with alphabetic gestures) under a spinning mirror ball.

That’s the final scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, reinvented by the University of Victoria’s theatre department as an energetic, music-stuffed romp. Smartly directed by Fran Gebhard, the show (condensed to two hours with intermission) is rejigged as a 1970s comedy in New York City. Oberon and Puck are punkers, Titania’s a blissed out hippie whose far-out attendants serenade her with Linda Ronstadt’s Love Has No Pride.

In this show, music — mostly rock, jazz and pop — is almost a character unto itself. We hear snippets of the Ramones, Sex Pistols and Blondie. Songs, both recorded and performed, are used cleverly to accentuate characters and themes rather than serving as aural wallpaper. For instance, when Nick Bottom (you know him as the man who’s turned into a donkey) stumbles onstage singing the Turtles’ Happy Together, the sheer goofiness of the tune reflects his loopy bravado perfectly.

The punks-versus-hippies notion also makes sense. Just as punk rockers aimed to upset society’s apple-cart, Oberon and Puck conspire to subvert the status quo by making everyone fall in love with inappropriate partners. And as queen of the fairies, Titania easily slips into the land of patchouli and granny dresses.

While Shakespeare’s language is 99 per cent retained, the script is re-tailored. There’s a lot of exposition in the original play — Gebhard has trimmed much of this, keeping only what’s integral to the action. Purists might grouse some scenes now lack full explanation. However, Midsummer Night’s Dream is so familiar to modern audiences, most likely require little backstory to understand what’s happening.

There’s some re-ordering of the structure, too. For instance, the play now starts with the rustics planning their play within a play — a ludicrously inept version of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. This, as always, is a laugh-stuffed highlight of the comedy. In this production, Sean Dyer, as Bottom, displays a strong comic knack, “singing” his lines with faux-actorly hilarity. The entire crew of rustics have strong moments.

Boasting a crimson mohawk, big black boots and a leather vest embroidered with “Uck,” Levi Schneider’s Puck is energetic and tough rather than sprite-like. While some might miss Puck’s traditional impishness, Schneider does justice to the role, whether executing handstands or clambering up a corrugated building with bravura.

Movement on the Chief Dan George thrust stage, choreographed by Jacques Lemay, is handled well throughout.

Aidan Correia’s Oberon, dressed in leathers and a pork-pie hat, is similarly punkish. Regality is exchanged for a street-wise toughness. This was captured by Correia Thursday night in a performance that was effective and (thankfully) not overdone. Space doesn’t allow giving a large cast (24 actors) full credit. However, notables included Markus Spodzieja as Theseus, Zoë Wessler as Hippolyta and Arielle Permack as Titania.

Allan Stichbury’s set representing a patch of Central Park is beautifully detailed, with tufts of grass poking up between cracked cement and even a manhole stamped with the letters “NYC.”

The 1970s costumes by Dallas Ashby are clever and fun (Theseus and Hippolyta’s well-cut country club outfits are especially a hoot).

For beginners who are interested in experiencing Shakespeare but intimated by the language, this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a good, entertaining introduction.

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