Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Reviews are in for "A Midsummer Night's Dream!"

From Style Weekly:

There was a moment during Richmond Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when I literally could not stop laughing. Near the play’s end, the sheer lunatic brilliance of director Andrew Hamm’s off-kilter rendering of the Shakespeare classic reached such a fever pitch that I found myself lost in the sea of silliness. I would have been more embarrassed about my guffaws if there weren’t several others in the audience doing the same thing.

Possibly the Bard’s most endearingly romantic comedy, “Midsummer’s” plot involves fairies, love potions, a man semitransformed into an ass, and quite a bit of mayhem. As if that were not enough, Hamm’s inspired cast pushes every envelope available. Sensual interludes between lovers stray into serious PG-13 territory. Characters who are supposed to be bad actors are hilariously horrendous. Some of the physical comedy looks downright painful, thanks to fight choreography help by David White.

Ensemble members throw themselves into multiple roles with abandon. Brandon Crowder leads this rowdy band, effecting breakneck changes between the regal Duke of Athens to the almost aggressively swishy Flute and eliciting laughs with as little as a well-placed glance along the way. Adam Mincks chews the scenery ravenously as donkey-eared Bottom, who attracts the affection of Fairy Queen Titania (Stacie Rearden Hall) thanks to the juice of a magical flower administered by Puck (Kerry McGee). Hall’s lusty looks are bracing while McGee is alternately fervent as the love-struck Hermia and delightfully impish as Puck. Sandra Clayton rounds out the crew ably with several small but vital bit parts.

It seems peckish to note that some of Shakespeare’s lyrical language gets lost in modernisms such as “Sweet!” and “Awesome!” But Hamm makes up for it by inserting charming musical interludes into the action with a cast (particularly Hall) in spectacular voice. For a show not billed as a musical, this “Dream” sings. — David Timberline

And from the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Richmond Shakespeare's season finale a fun one


Published: April 19, 2009

"A Midsummer Night's Dream," Richmond Shakespeare Theatre's final production of its indoor season under the direction of Andrew Hamm, roars delightfully into its raucous conclusion, which includes a play within a play and a wedding celebration.

There is something old (the play by William Shakespeare), something new (the cast and the indoor location at Second Presbyterian Church), something borrowed (costumes and props from previous "Dream" productions), and something . . . (well, there's got to be something blue in there somewhere).

With costumes and set kept to a bare minimum, the cast of five takes on 21 roles, resulting in effects and situations that might have surprised the Bard himself.

This "Dream" features a tight-knit and lovable ensemble. Some of the casting contrasts are startling and ingenious. Sandra Clayton is the elitist Egeus as well as the simple carpenter; Peter Quince, leader of the local community of actors, also known as the Mechanicals; Brandon Crowder is both the noble Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Francis Flute, the bellows mender who plays the role of Thisbe in the play-within-a-play.

And while it is not unusual for men to play women's roles in Elizabethan theater, Crowder's over-the-top Thisbe, dressed in a contemporary beauty queen evening gown and some killer black stilettos, leaves an indelible impression.

Kerry McGee gives Robin Starveling, the tailor member of the acting troupe, a round-shouldered, slumped posture, slow movements and delayed reactions that suggest poor Starveling may have either mental or chemically induced challenges.

The cast is rounded out by Stacie Rearden Hall, who plays Demetrius's lover Helena as well as three other roles, and Adam Mincks, who plays Demetrius, as well as Nick Bottom, who, as the unfortunate object of Puck's prankishness, ends up with a donkey's head and the magically induced love of the fair (sic) queen, Titania.

Shakespeare's words, juxtaposed against modern-day clothing and props, and in the hands -- and mouths -- of this enthusiastic and zany cast made 2½ hours in uncomfortable chairs in an overheated chapel fly.

(Man, Blogger is annoying. I have no idea how the formatting on this thing is going to look from computer to computer. As soon as you add a damn picture, all the spacing goes to hell with this thing.)

Obviously, I'm very pleased to get two such nice reviews. And far be it from me to complain about the nit-picky details of theatre journalism. That would be downright peckish of me (snicker). But the experience of receiving a pair of pretty silly reviews for my last show (the T-D spending half the column inches recapping a plot most everyone knows from the famous movie, the Style Weekly referring to an actor's underwear twice and her acting never) has me somewhat prickly.

I do wish Style would stop this practice of combining two reviews under one headline. In an environment where print media is bleeding market share to the interwebs, it is odd and inconvenient for them to mash two pieces under one heading, making both reviews baffling for search engines and making it extremely difficult for the second review to be effectively posted on Facebook and other such sites. On my Facebook page, it looks like some kind of a computer glitch: the headline and beginning of the review of the AART production of Steel Magnolias juxtaposed with a picture of the Midsummer cast, which, trust me, couldn't double for their show.

This isn't just a hypothetical complaint. I was contacted earlier this month by a theatre producer who is interested in bringing me in to direct a five-actor As You Like It next year based on the the strength of last spring's reviews. He found them by doing a search for small-cast Shakespeare. I'm not sure he would find Style's review, which would help me very much, very easily, and if he did, a casual glance would not encourage a scroll down to read it.

As for the Times-Dispatch, I suppose one can blame the short staff for the typos (most of which I fixed above, though "fair queen" was too amusing to repair). But it does appear that Kerry only played Starveling, no one in particular played Puck and Titania, and that Oberon did not appear in the play. Actually, both reviews omit Oberon entirely, which disappoints me tremendously. I love my entire ensemble, and cherish how much each of them has brought his or her own personality and joy to the process and the performances. But Brandon's non-realistic movement style as Oberon is absolutely one of the most noteworthy and interesting aspects of the show, and the fact that a dancer-reviewer didn't mention it at all was a big letdown to me. I was so excited that she was going to see these actors (Brandon, Kerry, and Stacie) perform these decidedly non-human movement styles, and not a mention! Seriously, I'm as frustrated by these good reviews omitting this one aspect as I have been from any bad review I've ever gotten. Brandon's work in this show deserves notice. In a company brimming with singular performances, this one merits ink. Or pixels.

That said, it was a blast to watch Julinda and Dave T laugh their butts off Friday night. There is a tendency for people in the theatre critiquing business, either as writers or artists, to go to the theater and demand to be impressed. I had a dear friend come to As You Like It last spring and sit in the back row the entire show, arms crossed, scowling. He never told me what he thought of it, a clear implication that he hated it. Everyone else in the audience, in every audience, smiled and laughed and clapped, but this one guy had had his ability to just enjoy stripped away by years of feeling the need to appear impressive. We all know these people: theatre artists who seem to hate theatre--or at least theatre they aren't in. So it was lovely to see the Reviewers of Record abandoning themselves to the barely-controlled chaos and silliness of our Dream.

Not all of the jokes land. I can't make the Christopher Walken cowbell joke work, so it's getting cut. But a new one, where Bottom calls for a line during the climax of "Pyramus and Thisbe," more than compensates. I don't say this often, but I will here: if you like this play or like this company, I recommend coming to see the show early in the run so you can come again later. The company has a lot of leeway to adlib and grow their performances, so there are going to be a lot of new and different funnies from night to night.

I plan to write my requisite "Making-Of Featurette" post later this week, so look for it in this space. For now, I'm unashamedly basking in the glow of overwhelmingly positive critical and audience response. This company is wonderful; the only thing I can compare it to is last spring's As You Like It group, and they turned out okay.

EDIT: Dave T took justified umbrage at my frustration over the omission of Oberon in both reviews. Frustration is frustration; it makes you say "Awww, MAN!" and type dumb stuff.

Let me clarify that I'm honored and tickled at the positive audience and critical response to this show. (You should have seen the two guys in the front row last night. They are going to be sore for days from laughing.) I had just really hoped that this fantastically physical performance, as well as the relationship between Oberon and Puck, could be squeezed in. 300 words is an awfully tight restriction, but I really want to share the wonder of these actors' work with everyone. I know you can't fit everything in, but Oberon is the play's biggest role, you know?

Trust me, it takes something I'm very passionate about to make me nit-pick rave reviews. Thank goodness for the interwebs, which allow us to talk for as long as we want about these things.

As for the two-review thing, I'm not talking about review length, or even the print edition. I'm talking about separating the reviews into two different URLs with two different headlines and sets of search parameters for purposes of web searching. The internet is a huge information archive, and Style Weekly should be thinking about future accessibility.

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  • At 4/22/2009 8:31 AM , Blogger Dave T said...

    "Seriously, I'm as frustrated by these good reviews omitting this one aspect as I have been from any bad review I've ever gotten."

    Seriously? Hm. Interesting. Perhaps you would like to send me a notice of the one aspect of a production you'd like highlighted beforehand so I can know which 2 or 3 other things I can omit from my 300 words to make space for it. Perhaps drop mention of Ms. Clayton or Ms. Hall altogether?

    I would agree with you that squeezing two reviews into the space of one is frustrating. I used to have 600 words for reviews, allowing me to cover a whole lot more. I could probably lobby to get those extra 300 words back -- at the cost of dropping the review of the other production. Meaning that it would be even more of a crap shoot as to whether your production got covered at all, at least by Style. It sucks, undoubtedly. But still, I'd be careful what you wish for...

  • At 4/22/2009 9:43 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    I totally understand the ridiculous word constraints you're under. I had just REALLY hoped that Brandon's singular, physical, acrobatic, combative, dancerly, graceful, leaping, gliding, tumbling, totally unique performance would merit a mention by at least one publication, particularly since Oberon is the largest role in the play.

    It's not that I'm pissed about its omission. That's not what I meant. I just think it's one of the most special parts of the play and no one gets to read about it. Julinda, bless her, gave a whole paragraph to Starveling, who has about 10 lines. Now I love Starveling more than anyone, but Oberon's name doesn't even appear in the review. I just find that odd.

  • At 4/23/2009 9:07 AM , Anonymous Phil said...

    I'll make a nightmare out of your midsummer night's dream!!!!


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