Theater is alchemy. Every production begins with lead: a script. However good the play is, the script is nothing but an empty blueprint, a suggestion of what the play could become in its highest form. Through the hard work of interpretation, casting, set design and creation, and lots and lots and lots of rehearsal, that script is slowly transformed (one hopes) into the gold of a fully realized theatrical production. Like real gold, a good show pleases aesthetic senses while also turning a nice profit.
Perhaps this is the inspiration behind southern California’s newest theatrical group: Alchemy Theatre Company. A long time in the making, Alchemy finally has mounted its first show, Shakespeare’s popular comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In a gorgeous outdoor setting, Alchemy has transformed this classic tale of fairyland intrigue, ill-advised shapeshifting, and magically manipulated affections into its very first piece of theatrical gold.
This may well be Shakespeare’s most often-performed and most well-known play. While that can be a blessing, it can be hard to find a fresh new take on such a beloved show. Director Jesse Runde succeeds in this undertaking. Runde takes advantage of the outdoor, tree-lined location and the play’s trope of the comical band of misfit actors to create the historically accurate illusion that we are meeting a troupe of thespians in the woods. With a little improv and a lot of fun, our cast transforms from roving actors into the show’s characters right in front of our eyes.
This device smashes the fourth wall, establishing a lovely relationship between audience and actors. To further the relationship, the cast selects an audience member to play the tiny, unpopular role of Egeus. Marked by a red sash over his T-shirt and jeans, the brave volunteer reads most of his lines from the back of the house. It’s a really fun addition that mines humor (gold) out of one of the play’s most blasé characters.
The four herbally-influenced lovers function as such a unit that it is difficult to mention them separately. Their words and actions bounce off of each other, intertwining like a chain. Thankfully, there is no weak link in this chain, and the charisma among Jeff Lowe (Lysander), Chelsea Harvey (Hermia), Lila Bassior (Helena), and Daniel Conder (Demetrius) is genuine and energetic. Their strange situation builds energy and finally explodes into a dizzying display of staging as the lovers have it out with each other. This is the play’s most entertaining moment, and all four actors fully revel in its fun (as does Puck, who watches with delight).
Speaking of Puck, Chelsea Feller delights in more than just that one scene. Puck is constant mischief, and Feller shines in the fairy’s sense of humor. Tiffany Berg is radiant as fairy queen Titania, especially in her profuse love for – for lack of a better word – Bottom’s ass.
Fairy king Oberon is a difficult role. He seems motivated more out of obtaining a servant from Titania than out of any love or hate of his estranged wife. He starts all the mischief, but takes joy in little of it. Donald Formaneck treads that tightrope admirably (and also does an
excellent, mostly improvised job as the pre-show’s “Player King”).
What would Midsummer be without Nick Bottom? Perhaps the most popular role in Shakespeare, Bottom is a force unto himself. Yet, there can be a tendency to overdo some of his best moments, especially during his inter-species love affair with Titania. Tyler Campbell resists the temptation to over-overact. The result is a Bottom who honestly loves his fellow players, one we can feel affection for as Titania showers him with her fairyland charms. Then, when he finally arrives to perform with his troupe, we can cheer at his melodramatic yet lovable performance of Pyramus. Campbell has chosen an honest Bottom, and it works.
Alchemy Theater has burst onto the scene with a very strong production. They clearly have talent both on stage and off. There is a (forgive me) Puckish sense of creativity behind this production that I hope will continue as a thread throughout their future productions.
Aside from gold, of course, alchemists also look for the Philosopher’s Stone, that magic rock that can bestow immortality. Theater can bestow immortality. Wonderful performances and plays have a way of living forever in the minds and hearts of an audience. Alchemy is well on its way to theatrical gold, and hopefully it has begun that journey into immortality.