The Style is All

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Like most recent Actors' Gang shows, "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" comes down to a question of style.

How you feel about the show, whether you find it creative and enchanting, or. . . otherwise depends on whether you buy into the Gang's style.

Now style in the theater, or in art for that matter, often takes two different paths. There's style that emerges out of the subject, that becomes a response to the challenge at hand. Then there's style that becomes the answer to every problem; the lens through which you see every artistic challenge. As the old saying goes 'if all you've got is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail'.

For better or worse, the Actors' Gang 'style' falls into the latter category. For folks not familiar with it, it's a cousin of commedia: heightened, presentational, often percussively accompanied. To their credit it's a style they've been working with for a couple decades and apply liberally to the shows they tackle.

In the case of Shakespeare's comedy, it's not, at first, an unhappy marriage. The energy and direct address lend themselves to opening up the play to the audience. And once the lovers escape Athens - the energetic cast has something to really sink their teeth into. The forest and world of the fairies is brought to life with 'story theater' gusto. The twelve member ensemble cast transforms their writhing bodies and a few twigs and boughs into a breathing wood filled with all manner of fairy and sprites. Keeping with the collective feel, Puck is a part shared by almost the whole ensemble - finding life in a variety of moods and bodies as the moment moves him.

Now if this is your first experience of the Gang's work, or you're a diehard fan, it's a thrilling world but. . . if you don't completely buy into the style all this inventiveness begins to feel. . . well, something less than inventive.

The challenge is something of a paradox. While this "Midsummer" keeps more of Shakespeare's text intact than most productions, running the night I saw it at close to 3 hours, the words don't feel like the driving force. The script becomes a vehicle for the 'style' rather than the other way around. By the fourth or fifth woodland movement sequence, it began feeling like all this creativity was hiding the play rather than revealing it: a bit like all the sketches for a large canvas had been pasted onto the final work rather than merely being fodder for it.

There are several notable exceptions: there's a touching and beautiful dumbshow after the young lovers are reunited and set right in the forest. As they sleep, before being discovered by Theseus and Egeus, they collectively play out the dream of their whole lives - from marriage through their deaths. It's a window into their hearts rather than a piece of business to fill the stage.

The challenge for a company like the Actors' Gang, that's wedded to a particular way of making work, is finding a way to keep that exploration fresh for both actors and audience.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" plays at the Actors' Gang in Culver City through August 30th.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Banner Image Credit: Dianna Oliva-Day