Theater Review | A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM for the ages at Portland Center Stage

Tim True, Linda Alper, Andy Lee-Hilstrom, Daisuke Tsuji, Todd Van Voris and Damon Kupper. Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

4-stars

Most seasons the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival puts on 11 shows and ends in early November. But this year a strong argument could be made that Oregon’s largest theatre company is still going strong the week before Thanksgiving on show number 12.

While stages in Ashland may be dark, the Gerding Theater at former OSF satellite Portland Center Stage is blazing bright. And under the masterful direction of OSF veteran Penny Metropulos, with a star-studded cast that includes several other favorites imported from the Rogue Valley down south, PCS has opened a truly outstanding production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM as the centerpiece of its 25th anniversary season.

The director’s the thing. Watching Metropulos at work here is breathtaking. She goes big, then she goes bigger still. She then – continues to go big. And then goes bigger. Over and over. And she absolutely nails it every time. No detail is spared, no dramatic stone is left unturned, not one inch of the playing space is neglected. With the full power of PCS’s set, lighting and costume capabilities at her command – not to mention the assembled acting talent – Metropulus is at the helm of an aircraft carrier of theatrical possibility. And she knows how to use it. She squeezes every last drop of achievement from her team to fantastic effect. This is the kind of epic production that (in Portland) only PCS can do. And how great to see them do it.

The color, the texture, the totality of the theatrical experience deployed here remind us just how powerful our art form can be when it’s on. And is it ever ON! In front of our eyes, another world – completely crazy but also perfectly plausible – is created. It is operatic. It is cinematic. It is magic. Bill Shakes would have understood.

Metropulos has embedded the story, the text, in the wonderful physical actions of her characters. From what might be a simple word or hint (or even blank space) on the page, Metropulos extracts fabrics of meaning, often to hilarious effect. We – god forbid – actually understand and enjoy Shakespeare! We want more – even after three hours. Who would have thought. This is pure stagecraft of the highest order – with the emphasis on craft.

Making all of this happen for us, of course, are the fabulous actors. Local lads Tim True, Damon Kupper, Andy Lee-Hillstrom, and Todd Van Voris are integral to the mad goings on in the forest and the delightful play within a play. All of them bring the house down at different comic moments, and their talented physicality must be seen to be believed. True in particular has a voice that could break a window over at Powell’s from center stage. Yet he always articulates clearly and cleanly. Even when he’s blasting the paint off the back wall at full volume and top speed, you can understand every single thing he says. Effortlessly. Kupper channels a Shakespearean Jewish electrician from Brooklyn with superb results. Van Voris has the weight not of the world this time but rather the moon on his shoulders. God is he funny. And Lee-Hillstrom gets to spend some quality time wearing (or not) a dress and straddling a (human) donkey.

On loan from the sunny south (Ashland) we have Jamie Newcomb, Linda Alper, and Daisuke Tsuji. What do you do as a director when you’ve got someone like Newcomb on the roster? You have quite a bit of fun. And fun WILL be had. There WILL be fun. Newcomb is in command here as a southern fried Bottom, at one point literally chewing on the scenery down stage right. What Newcomb does best in the theatre – and somehow he does it over and over – is inspire the audience (when they’re not trying to regain the ability to breathe in between laughs) to feel JOY and DELIGHT and WONDER. And you have not seen a melodramatic death scene until Newcomb defies belief and even gravity in one of the evening’s memorable physical touches. “Too much is never enough.”

As the director of our budding forest thespians, Alper is brilliant. You almost want to spend the whole play within a play watching her instead of her “actors” to see her minutely detailed reactions as she makes a script note or tries to keep someone on task. Tsuji is a lithe and limber Puck and looks simply gorgeous in his costume and hair flitting around the stage at warp speed. The rest of the cast is equally excellent. The young lovers are thoroughly fun and of the moment.

What probably needs to be called out yet again here is simply the massively detailed vision for what this production could be – and indeed has succeeded in becoming. And for that we are presumably back to Metropulos. Every last detail counts, from a sound queue that tells us a character is frozen in place, to a pointed finger that hits its target, to the grunt of an ass (both the animal and human kind), to a slender orchid filled with fire water, to the mystery of the stars above. It takes a lifetime of accumulated experience to be able to direct a show so completely realized as this one, but luckily all we the audience need is a few spare hours out of our evening to be able to show up and enjoy – nay, CHERISH – the result.

If there was any downside on Saturday night, it is that we the audience somehow failed in our duty to reward such peak work with our own outstanding thundering ovation. Ironically, in this age of the throw away standing ovation, when almost any product on stage seems to bring the audience to its feet at the end, this masterpiece somehow got only about 1/4 of the viewers up. Baffling.

What was actually called for was one of those old style unending five minute torrents of applause, and curtain call after curtain call, with grandmothers crying and throwing roses from the aisles. Like you hear about from days gone by. It’s that good. Oh well. Perhaps it was the late hour. Folks need to get home and let the dogs out.

What else is there to say? This production – one for the ages – is sure to be remembered not only as a major highlight in the 2012-13 Portland theatre season, but also as an overall PCS career crown jewel. Thanks must be paid to anyone and everyone involved in bringing this show to the stage. Through the efforts of dozens, we the lucky audience members get a chance to plug directly into the great English language theatre tradition stretching back hundreds of years and still alive, and so connect with the hundreds of thousands (even millions?) of other audience members across time who just for a moment, through the efforts of the outstanding theatre artists of their day, caught a glimpse of the true magic in the forest. Bravo.

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Indeed.

And we’d be fools to miss this spectacular production.

-Win Goodbody