Despite virtual projects in the interim, Spirit Gum Theatre Company closed its last live, in-person play production, “Significant Other,” in January 2020.
The company will hit the ground running with an outdoor, “strolling” production of one of theater’s most popular scripts. Spirit Gum will use the natural backdrops on the Winston-Salem Montessori School’s campus in Clemmons to help present William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Lara Ianni directs the comic tale, set in Athens and a nearby forest. Amanda Wils is the stage manager; Mary Wayne-Thomas designed the costumes.
The cast includes the four young Athenians who so well fit the Bard’s phrase, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Lysander (Mark Tyler Joy), Demetrius (Drew Baker), Hermia (Sarah Jenkins) and Helena (Elyse Rodriguez) battle amongst themselves and against the “ancient privilege of Athens” that Hermia’s father, Egeus (Glenn Otterbacher) and Athens’ ruler, Theseus (Gregg Vogelsmeier) wish to enforce.
The audience also meets Theseus’ wife, Hippolyta (Sarah Thompson); the fairy king and queen, Oberon (Matt Lunneman) and Titania (Emily Emerson); various fairy attendants; and local working people doing their best to present a play to please the Duke. Overseeing much of the midsummer night’s impish and teasing activities is the trickster Puck (Haley Motsinger).
Filling out the cast are Michael Ackerman, Ken Ashford, Samuel Gomez, Layla Grace, Linda Minney, Kinsey Taylor and Emily Ultan.
Ianni, a self-described “huge Shakespeare nerd,” wasn’t troubled by taking on a much-produced classic play.
“People talk about Shakespeare being a genius with words, which unquestionably, he was, but I believe beyond that, he was a genius at understanding how people work,” she said.
“When you dig into his poetry, the word choice, the meter, the rhyme scheme are all very purposeful, and they work together to create these very full, deeply human characters, certainly nowhere more so than ‘Midsummer.’”
For Ianni, “Midsummer” is one of Shakespeare’s most relatable plays.
“We perhaps can’t relate easily to ‘Henry V,’ because most of us don’t know what it’s like to be a ruling monarch or lead men into battle,” Ianni noted. “However, most of us do know what it feels like to fall in love, or have our heart broken, or to be in an argument with a partner.
“We recognize ourselves in these characters, and that’s where the poignancy and the humor come from. Our ability to relate keeps us coming back to this play, even 400-plus years after its first performance.”
“Midsummer,” Ianni feels, has much to recommend it to audiences.
“This is the original ‘romantic comedy,’” the director said. “We’ve got star-crossed lovers who want to be together but are forbidden, we’ve got unrequited love, and then we have some very mischievous faeries making a mess of it all with misplaced love potions. Alongside that, we also have the most amateur of amateur theatrical groups trying their hardest to rehearse a play, with questionable success.
“My hope is that this story can be a balm to those who need it. It’s joyful without being ‘fluffy.’ It has real pathos and heartbreak, but ultimately a happy ending. And of course, it is very, very, funny,” she said.
Sarah Jenkins, who has played Helena before, gets to explore Helena’s counterpart and competitor, Hermia, this time.
“It’s interesting,” Jenkins said. “I’ve always related very strongly to Helena’s story and never saw myself as a Hermia ‘type.’ So, it’s been enjoyable getting to subvert my own preconceptions a little bit.
“I enjoy getting to play the Lysander/Hermia scenes early in the play,” she said. “They are so genuinely sweet and romantic, which is something I haven’t gotten the chance to do a ton of. I also really like the character’s bravery. I think she has some serious steel in her spine to defy her father and run off with Lysander the way she does.”
Spirit Gum hopes the outdoor location will just enhance the play.
“We’re inviting the audience to quite literally come on that journey with us,” Ianni said. “Audience members will start in one location, but at two moments in the show, they will get up and walk to a new location alongside our characters. There’s seating at each location.”
As director, no matter how many times she’s worked with the play, Ianni has enjoyed helping her actors find the characters and add life to the words.
“I’ve been blown away by this cast,” she said, “not simply by their talent, which is impressive, but their willingness to dive in, explore, and bring their intelligent and heartfelt insights to this story.”