With its magic, fairies, mythical creatures and mysterious woods, the Atlanta Botanical Garden seems ideally suited for a little Shakespearean romantic romp.
Happily, the Alliance Theatre is ready to step in.
We are told that the Alliance production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Atlanta Botanical Garden is the theater’s first experiment with performing out of doors. They picked a good stage.
The Botanical Garden, already otherworldly, with its banks of colorful blossoms and glass and metal sculpture, tilts even further toward the fantastic these days, as it shows off the giant topiary creatures of the “Imaginary Worlds” exhibit.
On the way to a temporary Alliance stage that has magically appeared in the Skyline Garden section, patrons of the Alliance show will stroll past a mermaid, a trio of camels, a dragon and a flying horse, among other apparitions, all giant-sized and built out of living, flowering plants.
Director David Catlin, of Chicago’s muscular Lookingglass Theatre, took this setting into account as he adapted Shakespeare’s bawdy comedy for the physical, circus-trained theater that is Lookingglass.
His donkey-headed Bottomside is wreathed with flowers, looking like a topiary creation; Titania wears a crown of spiky leaves; the stage itself is nestled in the natural world, built of artificial lily pads over a pond, walled with banks of faux foliage and a cloud ceiling.
That cloud eventually rains on the star-crossed lovers, waking them from their woodland sleep, and drawing them into a Bollywood-inspired song and dance in the downpour.
There are no trapeze interludes (which Alliance patrons will remember from Catlin’s 2016 production of “Moby Dick” at the Alliance), but dancing in the rain introduces its own dangers. It’s a “water hazard on the course,” Catlin joked during a recent daytime rehearsal, just before a nighttime preview performance.
This production is the world premiere of Catlin’s adaptation, which, he concedes, might incur the wrath of some Shakespeare scholars. Knowing that he would be performing in a garden, he turned the “rude mechanicals” (including Peter Quince, Snug, Snout, Starveling and Bottom) into gardeners, with names such as Francis Fern, Petunia Prune and Brick Bottomside. They are equally rustic, but their trades involve pruning and planting, rather than tailoring, weaving and carpentry.
Catlin was inspired by an abstract flower sculpture in the Skyline Garden, and by flowers themselves. His set designer, Kat Conley, constructed several spinning sculptures of curved galvanized steel pipe that resemble the curves of a heart, or the stamens of a flower. Actors hang from these constructions, climb on them, revolve inside them, and perform the gymnastics for which Lookingglass Theatre is known.
“I want people to feel like they’re inside a flower,” said Catlin.
Though this theater in the round is enclosed, it is fully open to the elements, and the natural world.
During recent performances, nature kept joining in. A bat swooped through the audience, gobbling mosquitoes; frogs added their voices to the soundtrack; butterflies tried feeding from the silk flowers in the scenery; one rehearsal was paused briefly after a sound designer was stung by a bee.
“I knew about the flora in the garden, but I hadn’t thought about the fauna,” said Catlin.
His spinning sculptures might not seem logical, but, he said, “Falling in love is not rational, and that irrational nonsense is very important. We need a little nonsense. Some of the best things in life don’t make sense.”
During a recent daytime rehearsal, the cast practiced dancing and singing in the artificial rain, summoned by a silver-dressed Courtney Patterson.
After the rainstorm, sound assistant Anna Lee moved from Adeoye (as Francis Fern) to Patterson, using a can of compressed Dust Off to dry the wireless microphones that the actors wear taped to their faces. The rain can short out the mics, but “no one is going to be electrocuted — nothing that interesting,” said Lee.
This production represents the last stop of the wandering Alliance, which has been banished from its home, and over the 2017-18 season has presented plays in 12 different venues all over the metro area, while its home stage has undergone a yearlong renovation.
It will return home to a refurbished Woodruff Arts Center stage in January 2019.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by the Alliance Theatre
Through Oct. 21. Days and times vary. $19.18-$69.18; tickets available at Woodruff Arts Center box office, or at the Atlanta Botanical Garden the hour before each performance. Atlanta Botanical Garden, 1345 Piedmont Ave. NE, Atlanta, 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org/midsummer.
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