LINEUP: Cast of Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppet Company's ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ (Photo courtesy Simon Annand)

LINEUP: Cast of Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppet Company’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ (Photo courtesy Simon Annand)

You have just a few more opportunities to catch Britain’s venerable Bristol Old Vic and South Africa’s young Handspring Puppet Company as they wrap up their run of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica through April 19.

Maybe it was opening night jitters, but when it started, my guest and I both feared a stiff, high school-level performance of this beloved play. And the use of puppets seemed at first an idea that was simply tacked on to the production.

However, by the time intermission arrived, the performers and puppets all had hit their stride. Like Shakespeare’s Old Globe and the National Theatre of Scotland, actors in costume mingle with the audience and move about onstage before the show begins, letting that fourth wall vaporize before it comes up again to imbue the stage with magic potions, fairies and a donkey.

Never has the name Bottom been more appropriate! Positioned face down on a downward tilting platform with robotic donkey legs that move when he is wheeled around, the head of Bottom (played powerfully by Miltos Yerolemou) controls his donkey tail, on his feet are his ears and eyes, and his bare-naked butt is the ass’s head. Wait till you see fairy queen Titania (Saskia Portway) hug him.

As poor bewildered Helena, scorned and lovelorn till she becomes the lusted-after object of both Lysander (Alex Felton) and her beloved Demetrius (a very tall Kyle Lima), an outstanding Naomi Cranston gives great life to her character. And Akiya Henry packs a punch with her feisty but diminutive frame, which is so precisely apt for her role as Hermia.

Although there have been other productions dividing the role of Puck across three different actors, in this instance it’s a bit difficult to follow what the character is saying with three actors speaking and simultaneously operating the multiple objects that make up the “puppet” that stands in for Puck. A neat trick is the way the parts split apart as Puck whooshes off to create the play’s mistaken magical mayhem. But I’d just as soon focus on the language as struggle with the confusion.

If you like your Shakespeare fresh and original, you will walk out with a smile on your face. Find out more about “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by visiting thebroadstage.com or by calling the box office at (310) 434-3200.

 

Remembering Paul Robeson

 

When we think of Paul Robeson, the first thing that comes to mind is that deep voice, the one that sets the standard for the song “Ol’ Man River” from the musical “Show Boat,” a song he thrilled audiences with throughout his lifetime.

But Robeson, the son of a runaway slave, later became a star athlete and in 1919, class valedictorian at Rutgers University. With two years of law school at Columbia University, had he not chosen to become an actor, we might imagine him as a pioneering civil rights lawyer. Having established his reputation in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones,” Robeson played the role of Shakespeare’s jealous Moor for the longest running production of “Othello” in Broadway history, previously portrayed only by white actors in dark makeup.

Facing a lifetime of racism, Robeson was also a political activist who fought against social injustice, was accused of being a Communist for his support of organized labor and the Soviet Union and was blacklisted for his outspoken views. In many ways, these views have gotten in the way of the recognition this groundbreaking artist deserves.

Remedying that somewhat, there are two stage productions about Paul Robeson unfolding in L.A. this month. The first, “The World is My Home: The Life and Times of Paul Robeson” is a one-man show written and performed by Stogie Amir Kenyatta, this weekend only at Santa Monica Playhouse. He’s performed this show more than 200 times across the country and around the world.

A number of years ago, Kenyatta was hired by West L.A. College to create a piece about a Robeson for a Black History Month celebration. In an essay for LA Stage Times, Kenyatta said this about Robeson:  “At a time when the world had moved farther into darkness with the Holocaust and mass lynchings, his moral compass compelled him to use his intellect, songs and life to fight for social justice for African-Americans, Jews and others at all costs.” During World War II, Robeson has been quoted as saying that “nations go to war but arts and culture unite us.”

In “The World is My Home,” Kenyatta guides the audience through the biographical events of Robeson’s life viewed through the lens of his social activism, and engages in a Q&A with the audience following the shows, on Saturday, April 12 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 13 at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, call Santa Monica Playhouse at (310) 394-9779 or visit santamonicaplayhouse.com.

And beginning next Saturday, April 19, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” written and performed by Obie Award-winning actor Daniel Beaty, opens at the Mark Taper Forum. Described as a “tour de force” performance, Beaty brings to life not only Robeson but many of the people whose lives intersected with his, in this “world premiere production,” which has already seen the light of day at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse and the Arena Stage in D.C.

Rave reviews have come in for Beaty’s multidimensional performance, which includes Robeson’s triumphs, the songs he sang, and the indignities he suffered as a civil rights and labor rights activist during the McCarthy era. The play, with music provided by a live combo on stage, is an unflinching account of a minister’s son, who became the voice of the everyman around the world, daring to speak up and sing out for what was right.

“The Tallest Tree in the Forest” begins previews on April 12, and runs April 19 through May 25. Find ticket information and performance times at MarkTaperForum.org.

 

 

Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.

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