Last Sunday marked a typical mid-summer in Berkeley: leaden skies, knit caps and hoodies, the slight hint of an arctic wind. Woman's Will theater company had dubbed it a "Summer of Love," and the audience at Live Oak Park was trying to feel the warmth — figuratively speaking, at least. The all-female Shakespeare troupe, which mounts roving productions in Bay Area parks for free admission, had elected to try a hippie-themed version of A Midsummer Night's Dream this year, complete with tie-dyed backdrop and a soundtrack of familiar rock music by The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Jefferson Airplane. For director Victoria Evans Erville, the challenge was to fit all those devices into a largely unexpurgated script, and make it seamless enough to not seem gimmicky.
Granted, the idea of contemporizing Midsummer isn't new. Probably the most oft-performed comedy in Shakepeare's oeuvre, it's undergone many transformations and adulterations at the hands of Bay Area directors — most notably Melissa Hillman, whose Eighties version of the play involved a punk rock Puck, mod haircuts, acid washed jeans, Hello Kitty paraphernalia, and a Demetrius with a big honkin' cell phone. It was wildly successful. Evans Erville's interpretation is a little more subdued, but equally engaging. A lot of that has to do with her casting decisions, some of which hew to tradition, and some of which play against type.
Many of us who've seen Midsummer produced over and over again may harbor certain ingrained perceptions of each character. Demetrius, for instance, is supposed to be a two-timing cad — the guy who once sang oaths to Helena, then switched allegiances as soon as her friend Hermia caught his eye. Helena, in turn, is the desperate masochist, the one who problematically describes herself as "a spaniel." Hermia is shorter and cuter; Helena taller and more gangly; Hermia's current love interest, Lysander, is a bit of a tool. Bottom the Weaver is exactly as his name implies.
Such characterizations are hard to avoid, but Woman's Will managed to put a different spin on them anyway. It's probably obvious that the acting reflects the company's feminist bent. But don't go bracing yourselves for a lesson in gender equality, because these actors are graciously subtle. Perhaps the most notable shift is that of Demetrius (Anne Kobori), who seems more understated and passive than in other productions, and Helena (Katie Krueger), who is a stout-hearted, incorrigible flirt. Their relationship is more about female aggression than disempowerment. Helena even delivers the line about the spaniel in a coarse growl, causing Demetrius to back away. If anything, he's not fast enough for her.
The pairing of Hermia (Lexi Hart) and Lysander (Amber Sommerfeld) is also unconventional, if only because Sommerfeld's Lysander seems like such a stoner in comparison to Hart's peppy Hermia. But that contrast alone becomes grist for comedy. Since the play takes place in San Francisco (ground zero for the Summer of Love, of course), Lysander suggests that the two of them flee to Napa, where they can elope and resettle on a vineyard owned by his rich dowager aunt. The sight of them leaving — Hermia with a big suitcase, Lysander with nothing but his groovy apparel — is enough to draw laughs. Of course, the real comic meat of the play is a valiant-but-half-assed production of The Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisby tacked on the end, and calculated to either make Midsummer seem a lot longer, or infinitely more entertaining. In this case, the latter is true; not to mention that Alicia Stamps makes a great Bottom.
While the theme of this Midsummer affects the costumes and set design more than the script, it still allows the characters to make jokes at San Francisco's expense. The best occurs when Oberon (Jan Adrienne Gilbert) orders Puck (another punk rock iteration, played by Vahishta Vafadari) to spray the love juice in Demetrius' eyes, assuring that Puck "shalt know the man by the Pacific Heights garments he hath on." And, as it turns out, Demetrius' Pacific Heights garments are indistinguishable from Lysander's droopy hippie threads — at least to a punk rock fairy with a better fashion sense than both of them. Then there's the Napa joke, and King Theseus' obligatory name-checking of two major East Bay cities.
Other than that, the real time-and-place markers are the songs, most of which are sung a cappella. Evans Erville hired actors with vocal chops to tackle tunes like "Baby Love," "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," and "Take Another Little Piece of My Heart" — which Titania (Anna Smith) sings during her spat with Oberon, without flubbing a note. The whole point of adding popular music is to shore up sentiment, which Evans Erville tried to do throughout this production. In her director's note, Evans Erville quotes a Bon Jovi lyric about things changing and staying the same — meaning that a play about falling in love and being jilted is translatable to any time period. It's to her credit that she can reverse the sexism in Shakespeare, but still bring out the elements of a sweet, traditional romantic comedy. Clearly, this summer of love is immortal.