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Love is in the 'Midsummer Night's' air at OSF

Perhaps the most performed of Shakespeare’s comedies, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has a plot that, at first glance, may feel like a mash-up of a soap opera and a Forties musical.

Four Athenians get lost in the woods. Puck manipulates their romantic affections to make the boys fall in love with the same girl. In the end, Puck reverses the magic, and they leave the forest believing it all was a dream. They put on a play.

Of course, a lot happens in between. Playgoers will see for themselves this season when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival unveils a fresh, new take on “Midsummer” in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. The preview was slated for a sold-out opening night Friday, Feb. 28.

Shenanigans and magic aside, it is love, ultimately, that drives the play’s plot. Shakespeare portrays romantic love as a blind, irrational, often beautiful force that can be both cruel and forgiving. Director Joseph Haj adds a nuance to the theme he believes will enhance and enlighten the audience’s experience.

Haj, who helmed the 2015 OSF production of “Pericles,” is the artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

“Many scholars believe ‘Midsummer’ was written explicitly for a wedding,” Haj said. “If you look at it through that lens, you can see it as a guide for a young couple about young love, mature love, and enforced love.

“You could see it as entertainment and as a parable for the soon-to-be married couple.”

Haj says this version of the play is different in other ways as well.

“So many productions end up with the feeling of a New Year’s Eve party. Everyone is trying so hard to have a good time all night long,” he said.

Haj says his production will be sweet, funny, moving, gentle, and have a spirit of generosity.

“You can’t be funny 100% of the time,” he said. “There are so many other notes and other colors we hope to bring forward so it won’t seem like one big lunatic romp.”

There is another aspect of the play that is sure to resonate with audiences who will miss there being no traditional musical in the 2020 OSF lineup.

“Much like with our 2015 OSF production of ‘Pericles,’ I will be working with my close collaborator Jack Herrick to create a production of ‘Midsummer’ that has a great deal of music and song in it,” he said. “The play lends itself beautifully to being musicalized, and it is no accident that composers from Mendelssohn to contemporary writers have written music for the play.”

Herrick won a Tony Award for his work on the Broadway production of “Fool Moon” and has been a composer, music director and sound designer for regional, international, and off-Broadway companies. He’s also worked in film and television.

Rodney Gardiner, assistant director, is in his 10th season at OSF. A musician himself, he has a special appreciation for the music in this year’s “Midsummer.”

“Jack Herrick has created a captivating and varied soundscape,” Gardiner said. “It’s a delicious way in which to relish the humor and emotional truths embedded in this play. It’s a deeply funny and moving play. The music simply strives to elevate that.”

Gardiner has trod the boards as an actor in many OSF productions, but also has considerable experience in creating original works, writing for the stage and directing.

“I adore getting to peek over the shoulder of Joe Haj and learn from him. He is very much the kind of director I strive to be,” he said. “I also enjoy working with my company mates in a new capacity. Plus, Jack Herrick blows my mind. Every time he brings in a new composition, I wish I could jump into the show and sing along with the gang.”

Raquel Barreto, in her fifth season at OSF, designed the costumes for “Midsummer.” She is originally from Brazil, grew up there and in Paris, and moved to California to attend university. She lives in Los Angeles and is a member of the design faculty at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

“We understood going into it that a big chunk of our audience will have previously experienced this play,” Barreto said. “As a team, we didn’t focus on researching what has already been done, but rather on what we can offer to delight audiences with our particular focus on the show.”

She says that audiences see so much “magic” on screens these days, she wanted to concentrate on the things only live theater can offer.

“Our fairies are spiritual beings who enchant us with their music and who exist only in a world created by the set, lights, projections, and sounds of our production.” The costumes, she hopes, will reflect that realm.

Haj says the set is a playground of sorts.

“It evokes a nonliteral world of the court, the forest, and the world of the mechanicals.” The “mechanicals” are six skilled laborers who put on a play for the royalty of Athens.

Haj has worked in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre and the Thomas Theatre before, but this will be his first time in the Bowmer.

“I love that room. I’m very excited to have my first opportunity to direct there,” he said.

Haj says the beauty of “Midsummer” is that its themes never go out of style.

“An examination of love and relationships is forever current. In strong productions of that play, it feels as contemporary to us in 2020 as perhaps it did centuries ago.”

After the Feb. 28 debut performance, “Midsummer” will rotate in the Bowmer with “Copper Children,” “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “Poor Yella Rednecks,” and “Everything That Never Happened,” the latter two debuting in July. Final performances are on Nov. 1.

“Copper Children” previews Saturday, Feb. 29. Based on the history of orphan trains that transported immigrant children (mostly Irish) to homes in the West, this world premiere takes a look at the collision of good intentions and bad behavior with a blend of humor, tragedy, and unsentimental social commentary. It is directed by Shariffa Ali.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” previews Sunday, March 1. Adapted for the stage by Rick Elice from the 2004 novel “Peter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the play provides a backstory for the characters of Peter Pan, Mrs. Darling, Tinker Bell and Hook. The play won five Tony Awards during its Broadway debut. Not a traditional musical, it’s described as a play with music, composed by Wayne Barker. Lavina Jadhwani directs.

“Bring Down the House, Parts I & II” previews Tuesday, March 3, in the Thomas Theatre with Part I at 1:30 and Part II at 8. Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy is performed in two parts with a diverse all-female and non-binary cast. Adapted by Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski, it also is directed by Joshi, who helmed 2019’s lavishly praised “Henry V.”

For more information about the full 2020 OSF lineup and to purchase tickets, go to osfashland.org, or call the box office at 800-219-8161.

Jim Flint is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Lauren Modica, left, and Al Espinosa in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream." Photo by Jenny Graham