Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Heimbuch, who is co-artistic director of Walking Shadow, has borrowed liberally from two of Shakespeare's most fantastical plays, A Midsummer Nights Dream and The Tempest. From the former we have the characters Puck, fairy queen Titania, and fairy king Oberon, as well as a group of amateur thespians mounting a very silly rough-hewn play, a nod to Dream's rude mechanicals, and from the latter a leading character, Morien, who is a sorcerer, like The Tempest's Prospero.
A Midwinter Night's Revel takes place on one winter's night in World War I England. It is 1915, and the naive belief that the war that erupted the spring before would be quickly won and all the soldiers welcomed home as heroes, has been replaced by the dread understanding that a long fight lay ahead at the cost of many lives. Titania has possession of a ring belonging to a solider gunned down in France, whom she kept alive by spiriting him to the kingdom of fairies. She instructs an unnamed Boy, a changeling whose guardianship is the subject of dispute between Titania and Oberon, to deliver the ring to Gwen, the fallen soldier's young widow, as a sign to her. Oberon, angered by the liberties taken by Titania, dispatches his high-spirit agent, the fairy Puck, to intercede and bring the Boy back to him.
Gwen is staying with her father Morien (who has kept his powers of sorcery secret from all) at their family estate since her husband Robert left for war. She is greatly disturbed to see the ring, but Morien recognizes the Boy from his youthful days of sorcery. Meanwhile, Arthur, a friend to Gwen and Robert, returns from the war, an injury disqualifying him from further service. Arthur, whose mind has not yet recovered from the trauma of battle, is writing a play in which heroic mythic figures do battle. His sympathetic sister Clara talks Will, town tavern-keeper and object of Clara's affection, into joining with her and Arthur in performing the play. As they need a fourth actor to complete the cast, enter Puck, who introduces himself to the trio of friends and ingratiates himself into their company.
Thus the dice are tossed, and the story unfolds from there, with one character transformed into an animal (rendered marvelously by a life sized puppet), a trip to the kingdom of the fairies in an effort to rescue Robert, confessions of love, a magic staff, merry squabbling between the fairy king and queen, and more. The World War I context, with Gwen and Robert's life rent apart and Arthur's recall of the horrors he faced, gives the play a serious, sobering tone. The bickering between Titania and Oberon, the frothy play-acting, and Puck's hilarious antics provide levity to balance the sadness. Morien's past relationship to the magic of the fairies adds a sense of mystery to the occasion. The parts gel nicely into a whole, making for a rich holiday brew that entertains, touches the heart, and provokes curiosity.
Visually, A Midwinter Night's Revel is a stunner. Rob Jensen has designed a beautiful set. The central space is a forest grove between Morien's estate and the town, with monolithic stones rising Stonehenge-like from the earth. In fact, the name Morien is shared with a character from Arthurian legend, who in at least one account is credited as the architect of Stonehenge. Jesse Cogswell's lighting design adds to the sense of magic and mystery. The sky darkens as we travel more deeply into the night, bringing up fresh light as the new day awakens. Kathy Kohl's costumes are perfect fits for each of the characters, in particular the casual other-worldliness of the fairy folk. The lovely Edwardian garb worn by Gwen and Clara capture the difference in social status between these two friends. The show sounds great as well, with Tim Cameron's underscore and sound design of a piece with the play.
Every member of the cast does splendid work. Without any doubt Neal Beckman as Puck is the most entertaining. His non-stop antics are hilarious, as he gracefully cavorts around the stage. Peter Ooley's Morien is a steady-tempered man who sees the wisdom in leaving enchantment behind for the harsh but real world. Jessie Scarborough-Ghent presents Gwen as a woman of tenderness and heart, with the courage to take enormous risks in the name of love. As the Boy, young Jaxen Lindsey makes a marked impression, self-assured and holding his own nicely with his adult companions. Heidi Fellner and Danial Ian Joeck, as Titania and Oberon, are a well matched pair of self-centered, sparring lovers.
A Midwinter Night's Revel is Walking Shadow's first production of their 2015-2016 season, after taking home an Ivey Award for last seasons production of Gabriel. Director Amy Rummenie has whipped all of the ingredientstext, design, and performanceinto a lovely piece of work that, like the winter holidays, offers hearty measures of both substance and froth. The opening scenes do feel a bit slow, as exposition is being laid out, but before long, we have entered into the mysterious forest grove, laughing merrily and cheering for the characters to each find their way through both magic and reality, to peaceful hearts. A Midwinter Night's Revel should be welcomed back for many more holiday seasons, and deserves to be seen on the stages of other communities. What a joy to be present at its birth!
A Midwinter Night's Revel continues through December 30, 2015, at the Red Eye Theater, 15 West 14th Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $22.00 - $26.00, $20.00 seniors, $15.00 students, $10.00 Economic Accessibility Tickets (advance sale only). For tickets and information go to walkingshadowcompany.org or call 612-375-0300.
Writer: John Heimbuch; Director: Amy Rummenie; Set Designer and Technical Director: Rob Jensen; Costume Designer: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Designer: Jesse Cogswell; Composer and Sound Designer: Jesse Cogswell; Props Designer: Sarah Salisbury; Fight Choreographer: Meredith Larson; Accent Coach: Keely Wolter; Puppet Creators: John Heimbuch, Nick Hillyard and Kit Shelton; Puppet Movement Coach: John Heimbuch; Stage Manager: Sarah Holmberg; Production Manager: David Pisa; Assistant Director: Maxwell Collyard; Assistant Stage Manager: Shannon Cron.
Cast: Neal Beckman (Puck), Kayla Dvorak Feld (a fairy), Heidi Fellner (Titania), Zach Garcia (Arthur), Philip D. Henry (a fairy), Daniel Ian Joeck (Oberon), Jaxen Lindsey (Boy), Peter Ooley (Morien), Shelby Rose Richardson (Clara), Jessie Scarborough-Ghent (Gwen), Eric Weiman (Will).