Whenever I tell people I've seen an amateur youth performance of Shakespeare, they often respond by asking, "How was it?" The wry curl of their lips suggests, however, that what they are really asking is "How bad was it?"
The question assumes that sitting through two hours of inexperienced acting is simply a hazard of my trade. That's true; it is often an occupational hazard. But that was not the case during the Pikes Peak Youth Theatre's staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream, playing through November 4.
Not only was it not bad, as some of my chums presumed, it was pretty darn good -- despite the challenges. For one thing, the actors probably had to muster all their resources not to crack up as they intoned couplets over the muffled pronouncements of the City Auditorium's public address system, which was being used for a convention of cat fanciers next door.
Sure, the play had some of the trademarks of amateur productions: too much time in the darkness setting up props between acts, an uneven cast and many lines of witty poesy lost to speedy, monotone delivery. Indeed, there were times when the Shakespearean English droned out like so much sausage, leaving no pauses in which to assimilate what's been said, nor much expression to help the audience along.
Oh, and one more thing: Some actors chose to simply stand stiffly, with plastered grins or frowns, whenever the other actors spoke. A little bit more interplay between the leading and supporting actors would have helped bring the play to life.
All that out of the way, the play was actually quite entertaining, bringing both the play's comic silliness and its fablelike observations about the human condition to life. This was achieved mainly because the leading characters had the physical confidence and presence to help support the tricky task of bringing 400-year-old characters and verbiage to life.
Eighteen-year-old Rachel Rodriguez was very convincing as the besotted and beautiful Hermia, while seventeen-year-old Katy Armstrong did a great job as the pouty and less attractive Helena. Some of the best interplay came between these two characters as they mutually and comically accused the other of sabotage and treachery. Armstrong was great as she moped through her pursuit of Demetrius, played by 15-year-old Nick Ernster, and in conveying her cynical disbelief when Demetrius (with the help of potion) turns full circle and declares his undying love to her.
Other standouts include 17-year-old Joshua Kellison, who gets the award for most enthusiasm in his role as the overly eager and baffoonish tradesman-turned-actor-turned-ass, Bottom. Sixteen-year-old Lauren Faricy was appropriately confident and larger than life in playing the play's hero, Lysander, swaying easily between love-struck suitor, swaggering swordsman and disaffected lover.
Playing the mischievous Puck, the woodland spirit who initiates much of the play's confusion, Dan Tantanella did more than any single performer to bring the play to life. Gifted with expressive features and a lean, short muscular body, Tantanella used his own agility and sense of comic timing to leap about the stage with all the delight one would expect from an ethereal trickster.
Together with a few other notable performances, these actors were able to bring out the funny human antics and folly so wonderfully spoofed in this comedy.
So I say, go see it. You'll have a good time and it will remind you of another great thing about seeing amateur troupes stage Shakespeare, especially when it involves a play within a play (in this case, a group of tradesman performing for the play's obligatory royalty, the Duke and Dutchess). It reminds you that even high theater is never far removed from the aspirations and lives of ordinary people and that Shakespeare, despite his lofty position in the stage, was never far removed from those he so adequately and eloquently satires.