Theater student, Jesse Villarreal, first brought the concept of a Steampunk design setting of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to the attention of his teacher in a design course.
The students in the theater department, a few graduates and a professor of English at Bemidji State University have coalesced into a performing group that would rival any seen on any well-known stage, anywhere.
Although considered to be a nascent sub-group of science fiction, Steampunk is coming into its own with a notable example of it in the most recent Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. Steampunk is primarily set in the Victorian Era, and its rigid rules warp by using technological advances not known at that time.
Patrick Carriere and Ellen Jones combined forces with a BSU theater alum and professional costume designer, Chean (Alan) Yeong to bring to Bemidji a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by William Shakespeare that will be remembered by Bemidji audiences for years to come. Carriere, who directed two other notable Shakespeare plays at BSU - "Macbeth" in the traditional setting and "Twelfth Night" in a 1920s speakeasy -turned his imagination toward Steampunk touches in this latest venture. The team members have stretched their professional and creative talents in bringing a magical experience for players and audience alike.
The play will open at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 8, with the usual talk-back between the artistic staff and the audience to discuss the elements of Steampunk and how it is personified in this production. The rest of the evening performances will be held at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 9, and the following Friday and Saturday, April 15 and 16. There will be a matinee at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 17.
The simple stage setting of the opening scene belies the magic behind the curtain for it is the formal Athenians we first meet. A wedding is being planned to cement the peace agreement between the Athenian Theseus and the independent and vital woman Hippolyta, an Amazon, who shows little interest in the upcoming nuptials. The players are not in ancient Crete but in Victorian England, costumed in lavish and pretentious attire, which pokes fun at the social mores of the times. The other characters set the story in motion when a nobleman is frustrated because his daughter wants to marry a commoner and not the groom he has chosen. The daughter, Hermia, is in love with Lysander, and her friend, Helena, a commoner, loves the nobleman, Demetrius. Hermia escapes to the woods with her lover Lysander after being threatened to confinement in a nunnery by Theseus. Demetrius follows the young lovers there and is pursued by Helena who claims that she will be his spaniel, if only he would love her a little.
The curtains part and the audience sees a forest, but not just any forest for it contains large mechanical apparatus like a steam pipe simulating the limb of a tree or wheel gears holding up a bank of flowers, the flotsam and jetsam of ruined technology strewn about.
"This is a pretty exciting show for us," said Ellen Jones, assistant professor of theater in scenery and lighting design. "This is the first painted drop that we have done and it's quite beautiful with its translucency and we also have a lot of LEDs built into the set and other pieces that make the magical forest. So it was a lot of fun, for me as the designer and for the shop to put together. This is sumptuous classic elegance and flash trash magic."
A group of actors are in the woods practicing for a masque they will present at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. The rude mechanicals - men from an adjoining mine - are an assortment of bizarre characters led by Peter Quince as played by Brian Donovan, professor of English at BSU. His most troublesome and talented man is Nick Bottom (Eric Benson), a blowhard who seeks attention at any cost. The fanciful costuming of these players, who represent the transition from Victorian upper-class to purely mystical, magical fairies, is done by poking fun, for example, at ex-football players who continue to wear shoulder pads and helmets long after the roars of the crowds have ended.
The third group we meet on stage in the magic forest is the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and his wife, Titania, who are played by Jon Mansk and Ceara Dowell, and their fairies: Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mustardseed and Moth. And it is at this point that the audience really sees the skill that costume designer, Yeong, a professor of design at the University of West Georgia has brought to this production. It all fits together: the set, costumes and caricatures.
Yeong is generous in his praise of the costume shop manager, Laurie Pommerening, who interpreted his designs, and the three student "stitchers." Yeong finished the costume designs about two months ago and sent them to Carriere and then came up from Atlanta about a month ago with some of the fabrics to finish building the costumes. The fabrics for the costumes are extraordinary, especially as they are used in the magic forest.
This play is a total ensemble piece with many familiar actors as well as some new to the stage at BSU. One face that has not been seen in Bemidji for a while is Dein Lawrence who plays Puck attired in aviator helmet and goggles. Puck, probably one of the best known "cupids" in Shakespeare, is playful, sardonic and forgiving for he understands full well, "What fools these mortals be."
Tickets are $12 for adults, $6 for seniors and students and free for BSU students with a valid ID. Because of some adult situations and bawdy humor, this play is not recommended for grade school students. Tickets may be purchased through the box office by calling 755-3935 or in person from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1 to 4 p.m. in Room 101 of Bangsberg. Tickets will also be sold at the door.
This production is made possible, in part, by a grant from Region 2 Arts Council and is a SAFAC sponsored event.
For more information about the play and a listing of the actors, please see Staff Blogs on home page of Bemidji Pioneer.com and scroll down to Bemidji Arts News or www.bemidjiarts.areavoices.com.