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Midsummer in the south

The Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival returns to its roots

By Saundra Sorenson

 

ho can forget the classic scene in Gone with the Wind where an angry Scarlett accuses Rhett, “With thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport”?

Strike that. That wasn’t Gone with the Wind — that was A Midsummer Night’s Dream after a slight relocation.

This isn’t the first time that the Thousand Oaks’ Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival has relocated and rerouted one of Shakespeare’s classic plays — a past production of Much Ado About Nothing featured young men returning from World War I, and — to get actors out of the punishing toga — and there was a Julius Caesar set in a 1930s Godfather-esque environment. So this summer, why not A Midsummer Night’s Dream set on a Southern plantation in 1930s Athens (Georgia)?

As the festival approaches its tenth year, directors Michael Arndt and Lane Davies have decided to return to the festival’s roots with the production that started it all.

Ten short years ago, veteran stage, film and small-screen actor Lane Davies was trying to find a home for his Santa Susanna Repertory Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Professor Michael Arndt — with whom he had worked, off and on, since 1994 —suggested an outdoor venue on the California Lutheran University campus. This original production was staged on the grass under donated lights, and despite its short run, says Davies, “Lo and behold those two weekends led to 10 years of the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival. My instincts were right. I had the sense that Thousand Oaks was ready for an outdoor festival.”

The festival was named both for the park where it was based and for Shakespeare’s second acting company. For the first four years of Kingsmen’s run, admission was free to all, until the cost of putting on high caliber productions with Equity actors caught up with the company. Audience members 18 years of age and younger continue to enjoy free entry, and pre-show entertainment is kid-appropriate: Jugglers and the occasional fire-eater open the show with a scripted performance, generally a Shakespeare send-up.

“It was our commitment to make it a family-oriented company,” says Arndt. “We keep productions to under a two-and-a-half-hour time frame. And there’s plenty of visual spectacle.”

The stage is now multi-level, sometimes making use of the storybook creek and bridge in Kingsmen Park. To maintain the acoustics of an indoor theater, speakers are suspended in trees toward the back of the “house” in anticipation of the high volume of attendees. Onstage, parabolic speakers hang high above the actors to catch their every word without the hindrance of anachronistic clip-on mics.

The attendance of the festival has been between 10,000 and 15,000 strong, by Arndt’s estimate, with a devoted annual following: One family brings a low picnic table and candelabra for their yearly feast on the grass during performances. And for all the familiar faces in the audience, there are plenty of regulars onstage as well.

“Three of the [Midsummer Night’s Dream] lovers did the original Santa Susana/Kinsgsmen production in 1997 and 1998,” says Davies. “I like the idea of a company of players; it saves a lot of time and it generates a sense of community. I think the audience likes seeing actors that they recognize from previous productions. It gives them a sense of ownership over the company.”

As Kingsmen thespians gather to speak Southern-style Elizabethan English, Davies admits that his inspiration for the revamp was in part selfishness. “I’ve directed the play on seven other occasions, so I just wanted to hear a different version,” he explains. “Once I started thinking about this version, I had some of the actors that were actually in Richard III with me last year try some of the lines from the rustic scenes, with redneck dialects.” That initial reading was so lively that it was clear the production had found its niche.

“I already knew that the high Southern [dialect] would adapt to the lyrical part of the play, and it

was a matter of finding a world that would work with Shakespeare’s text and not corrupt him,”

Davies recalls.

Arndt, Theater Arts Professor at Cal Lutheran, points out that, from a linguistic point of view, the Southern dialect isn’t so random. “There have been studies done that claim Elizabethan English as it was spoken is close to some Southern dialects,” he says. “Rhythms, speed, how certain sounds are done — linguists say that when people settled here, they maintained language more than in an evolving England.”

The setting is an antebellum plantation that highlights genteel Southern tradition. The faeries of traditional Midsummer productions are now the ghosts of Civil War-era orphans and runaways; the faerie queen, Titania, becomes the specter of a Southern belle, a dominant woman with echoes of Scarlett O’Hara. The faerie identity is a game she plays with the children to distract them from the drudgery of the afterlife.

As for the four living lovers, the stars of the production — Demetrius, Helena, Lysander and Hermia — and the world they inhabit, considers Arndt, “There is a sense of wanting to keep everything in order, like the influence of father on daughters. Women are placed on pedestals.” The lovers’ flight at the beginning of the story demonstrates a break from that tradition.

The patriarchal Duke Theseus is a wealthy Southerner, “Duke” being his nickname, not his title; the acting troupe he employs is a group of “country bumpkins” who rehearse on his grounds.

Davies describes the faerie king Oberon — in this production, the ghost of a Confederate general — as “a dark force protecting the weaker forces in the netherworld, in what’s called the Duke’s Oak, actually the Duke’s Oak Plantation, which has been grown over in the war.”

Kingsmen’s second summer production, Othello, will be more traditional, but staging it has presented challenges similar to staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream: It has been done in every way imaginable, from the outdated convention of a white Othello in blackface, to Patrick Stewart’s starring performance in an otherwise all-African American cast.

“What excites me about a play is if I can find a hook,” says Arndt. “There has to be a reason that I want to do that play.”

This time around — after reading Othello countless times — Arndt found a new hook: Othello’s handkerchief, formerly his mother’s, which he presents to his new bride, Desdemona. The handkerchief becomes the only piece of material evidence of her alleged infidelity.

But why should a piece of cloth hold so much importance? “That’s the one thing [Othello] has from his past life,” Arndt points out. This struck a personal chord with the director, a Vietnam veteran, who carried an ammo box of his own artifacts with him during his year of duty in the jungle. The isolation of the Moor of Venice, a stranger in a strange land, isn’t an antiquated or obsolete experience. “All soldiers need that connection, you need that bit of reality,” Arndt notes. “That handkerchief becomes that past life, so there will be a break in the play, a spotlight on it.”

Davies then compares the outdoor festival to a community campfire. “Something in our DNA sort of responds to that, I think — people watching the storytellers at work.”

07-01-2006

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