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Release: Immediate

Voodoo tinges University Theatres production of Shakespeare's 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare's comedy of magic, illusion and romantic mischief, is relocated to the moonlit streets of contemporary New Orleans at Mardi Gras in the University Theatres production that opens at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 2 in E.C. Mabie Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building. Additional performances will be at 8 p.m. April 3, 4 and 8-11, with 3 p.m. matinees on Sundays, April 5 and 12.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream," with its fairy kingdom, was scheduled in conjunction with the "Victorian Fairy Painting" exhibition, which is making its only American appearance at the UI Museum of Art through May 24.

But director Mary Beth Easley, a faculty member in the UI department of theatre arts, had in mind a different sort of spirits than those inhabiting the mythical Greek woods of Shakespeare's script. She was intrigued by the bayous of southern Louisiana as an American location rich with associations to magic and mystery.

With the help of scenic designer Dan Nemteanu, costume designer Erin Howell-Gritsch, lighting designer Bryon Winn and sound designer Lindsay Kem, she has created a production saturated with voodoo. The transformed fairies speak Shakespeare's lines with a Haitian accent, the characters are dressed in opulent Mardi Gras fantasy costumes decorated with beads and feathers, and the production is propelled by composer Mark Bruckner's adaptations of African and Caribbean musics, and by the exotic movement design of Marya Brough. UI folklorist Harry Oster, who is an expert is Louisiana traditional music, has been a resource in the creation of the score.

In this version the human characters become pleasure-seeking revelers for whom Mardi Gras is an escape from the inflexible social codes that rule the city for most of the year. The King of Athens, Theseus, becomes an "old boy" machine politician, and Hippolyta is a bored international supermodel preparing to becoming his trophy wife. The fairies become the city's voodoo practitioners, who trace their heritage to Haiti and West Africa.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" includes the fantasy, farce and poetry that characterize Shakespeare's most mature comedies. Many magical hijinks occur in the woods during this "spirited" romp, including a series of romantic matchings and mishaps as a result of love potions administered by the mischievous sprite Puck at the behest of Oberon, the king of the fairies.

The eventual wedding, where the lovers are united with their proper mates, includes a comically bad play-within-a-play, in which the clumsy weaver Bottom and a group of his coarse companions perform "The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe."

In the UI version, this plot is refracted through the culture and social traditions of New Orleans. The Mardi Gras parades are traditionally organized by "krewes," clubs that reflect race, social class and economic status. The groups in Shakespeare's play -- the nobility, the laborers and the fairies -- become easily identified with these traditional Carnival krewes.

For Easley, the relocation is based on the philosophy that "Shakespeare was for the people, and a lot of times Shakespeare becomes an intellectual exercise instead of something that is accessible to contemporary audiences."

"The play's about love and what is love; and dream and what is dream and it's all on the eve of a huge ritual," she notes. "When we think of New Orleans and Mardi Gras we think of ritual, of the rite of spring and the end of winter. We think of love and wildness and all of that."

She says that Mardi Gras has provided a useful point of connection for the student actors. "I think it's worked beautifully, " she says. "They know about Mardi Gras so it's easy for them to relate to these people that they're playing. Some of my cast members have said that they understand everything that's going on, and it's the first time that they've ever seen a Shakespeare play in which they totally understand everything that's going on."

Easley also welcomed the opportunity that Mardi Gras provided for music and spectacle. "I'm a big music person, so we have Mardi Gras music," she explains. "We have a live band on stage playing, and Kammi Williams is singing with the band. And then within the spirit world we made it very musical -- there's a lot of Creole patois and Haitian music, and Ayeje Feamster ,who was in 'Ain't Misbehavin'' last fall, sings as a part of that world. So there's a lot of singing and traditional dance, along with the magic."

She says that the spectacle is authentic to the way that theater was presented in Shakespeare's time: "In Shakespeare's time there were card tricks and stunts and wandering musicians and all of that was a part of what was going on. So in a lot of ways it's very true to how he originally did it for the people of his time."

Tickets for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" are $14 ($7 for UI students, senior citizens and children 17 and younger). Tickets may be purchased in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be available at the Theatre Building box office one hour before curtain time.

Hancher box office hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and 1-3 p.m. Sunday. From the local calling area or outside Iowa, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance within Iowa and western Illinois is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction.

People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158. The line is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.