JOHNSON CITY – Shakespeare's Midsummer forest is typically populated with dainty, winged sprites that flit about, carrying out their fairy queen and king's whims.
Under the direction of theatre professor Herb Parker, this Midsummer Night's Dream will not take place in a lush, fantastical Elizabethan woodland, dotted with sparkling Tinkerbell-like fairies. Much of the wild dreams of the characters will take place in the minds of the theatergoers.
"It just entered my head, because I have been involved with the play many times," says Parker, a professional actor for more than 30 years. "I've acted in it five times and been cast in it six times. I've played the role of Bottom twice. I've played the role of Quince, the role of Puck many years ago. I've played Tom Snout. So I've had a long, long experience with the play. I know long passages by memory and cue the actors ... and somehow this particular production, this play seemed to call to me to be done."
And it called to be done differently.
"The concept I've arrived at seemed to present itself quickly and fully," Parker says with eyes shining. "Once I began to think about it, all kinds of ideas came with clarity and kept coming.
"As I continue to direct Shakespeare, I feel less and less need for special stage setting, in terms of scenery and walls and things, and in general, I feel a greater and greater need to do as much as I can to see that the story is told in words alone and the images and dreams of the characters.
"There are so many scenes in Shakespeare you can't afford to change the set every time, nor would it be wise to do so."
Instead, Parker, with the expertise of scenic designer Dr. Delbert Hall, has created a relatively Spartan and infinitely malleable set made up of a series of scaffolding, which can be climbed on and can suggest trees and branches or a mazelike forest the spellbound lovers, actors and a donkey can weave their way through.
"One who is in love is in a very real way taken over by magic, so I am relying on the audiences' imagination ..." Parker says. "I didn't want anything that actually was a limb or a tree, but things that could be used to make believe it was a limb or a tree ... so it can be everywhere or anywhere, depending upon the words."
Senior theatre major Samuel Floyd, as an agile and oft-angry Oberon, king of the fairies, gets to monkey around in the maze more than most. "The scaffolding is fun to work with," says Floyd, who is marking his third Shakespeare production at ETSU. "I wouldn't say it's difficult. It's fun getting on there and finding what I can do."
The atypical concept is different but has been quickly adopted by the cast. "I was kind of sad at first to not have the forest scene and typical fairies flitting around," says Chelsea Kinser, who portrays Helena, who can't quite tell who loves whom. "But it's so dark that it's kind of cool."
Parker's less-flowery vision for Midsummer's entanglements is also being played out in costumes and makeup, lighting and sound, thanks to Karen Brewster, Melissa Shafer and Scott Koenig, respectively.
These fairies should be earthy and rough, Parker says, rather than a pretty pink and white. "I wanted them to be of the night," he says. "Oberon is spoken of as the King of Shadows, so I wanted the fairies to embrace the night, almost as if they emerged up through the dirt below us, so I have dressed them all in black, hair mussed, dirty hands and feet, black fingernails and toenails and smudged faces.
"I asked Karen for only a bit of sparkle to faces and hair. That's the only thing that will be considered traditional."
In contrast, the people of Athens are in white and cream tones and in earthy shades, the group of crude laborers, whose night job is bad theater. All garb is plain and contemporary, rather than Elizabethan, Brewster says. "Herb has been very specific that he wants no color palette – all black and white with just a few earth tones," says Brewster, who is being assisted by graduate student Christine Waxstein, "so we are adding a bit of texture here and there to add dimension."
"I am adding patterns," says Waxstein, who has also created the donkey head for Bottom and the lion's costume for the play within a play.
Color will come in the form of lighting, Shafer says, and added dimension in projections on three specially made screens behind the actors. "The projections are going to be a very important part of the play."
Sound will add realism, says Koenig. "If we have a non-realistic environment like scaffolding and a bed with wheels, I may take that and let sound be the one thing realistic to a forest, like crickets."
Finally, movement, music and some modification will keep this production at the opposite end of the spectrum from the stereotypical Shakespearean recitation.
"Of course, I edit every Shakespeare play I do," Parker says. "I don't think Bill Shakespeare would mind that his plays are adapted. That used to abound even during his time. Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet were adapted to have happy endings.
"I've edited this to a brisk two hours or two hours and a bit ... I've managed to do that and still keep all the famous speeches."
Parker has also added a scene from Purcell's Fairy Queen and new music has been written by University School music teacher Joseph Borden to enhance the lullaby they sing to Titania, queen of the fairies. Choreography has been added by ETSU professor Cara Harker, with additional stage movement coached by ETSU dance instructor and Mountain Movers Director Jen Kintner to complete the darkly dreamy picture.
"It's very active," says sophomore theatre major Kinser, a veteran of Come and Go in fall and Tartuffe: Born Again in spring, who plays Helena, one of the four young lovers. "I haven't been in a play where I have been so carefully choreographed ... Jen came in and has helped us with movement and it has really helped us also with characterization.
"There are so many different elements in this production. Every rehearsal, the actors have found something new."
There's method in this magical madness, Parker says. "First and foremost, I hope we will inspire laughs and good will and maybe a surprise or two," Parker says. "I am hoping it will be easy to understand ... That is why it requires the actors to understand why they are saying what they are saying. The audience should not attempt to catch every word but just listen for the sense of what is going on with these people.
"If someone wants to look a little deeper, I hope they will, but number one, I want them to have fun."
Part of the fun is balancing the mayhem with moving moments and full intensity throughout. "A Midsummer Night's Dream is my favorite Shakespearean play," says Floyd, who has performed in ETSU's Hamlet and As You Like It, as well as the farcical Shakespeare's R&J. "It's serious. It's funny. It's got dark and despairing moments and also moments of hilarity and adventure."
And under Parker's direction, says senior Savannah Arwood, who plays Puck, the imp who causes most of the mayhem in Midsummer, "Everything is felt to the highest extent. If someone's happy, they're extremely happy. If they are sad, they are at the absolute lowest.
"Lovers are clawing, jumping, kissing, screaming, running away, running toward. Because of that, the audience will enjoy the play, if for no other reason, because there is so much to look at.
"One of Herb's lessons is you need action to go with the pretty words. And we have that, plus there's romance and violence. It's everything that everybody loves!"
The magic of A Midsummer Night's Dream begins Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011 at 7:30 p.m., and continues Feb. 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m., as well as Feb. 24-26 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 27 at 2 p.m. in ETSU's Bud Frank Theatre in Gilbreath Hall, first floor.
For reservations and information, call (423) 439-6511 or go to www.etsu.edu/theatre.