For the FSU/Asolo Conservatory production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, the part of a woodsy fairyland will be played by Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and Sarasota Bay. When the cast visited the site, they came away impressed.
“What struck me was how close we were to the water, and knowing that the sun will be setting behind us,” says Nolan Fitzgerald Hennelly, who plays the young lover Lysander. “We don’t have to do anything and we’ll have the most beautiful backdrop ever. That’s going to stay with people.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, especially when it’s performed outdoors. The play describes the moonlight adventures of four young lovers, five amateur actors and the fairies they encounter in the forest.
The cast of second-year students at the Asolo Conservatory will include Anthony J. Hamilton as Oberon and Mary Ellen Everett as Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, who lead an adventurous night mixing up the four young lovers played by Hennelly, along with Dustin Babin as Demetrius, Amber Lageman as Hermia and Colleen Lafeber as Helena.
The crowd-pleasing role of Bottom, an actor who gets briefly turned into a donkey, will be played by a woman, Kedren Spencer. The plot-essential part of a sprite named Puck will be played by Andrew Bosworth.
“I’m the one who gets to have the most fun,” Bosworth says. “I’m the one who gets to get in all the mortals’ business. If I’m not having fun, I’m doing it wrong.”
Directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Jonathan Epstein, who teaches at the conservatory and for more than 25 years has worked as an actor and director at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. He directed recent conservatory productions of Macbeth and As You Like It.
Epstein has done a lot of outdoor theater, where the challenges include actors swinging from trees, planes flying overhead and skunks skulking backstage.
This is his first time directing “Midsummer,” though he’s quite familiar with the comedy.
“I’m on the character actor’s trajectory,” he jokes. “I played Puck when I was young, Bottom when I was mature, and Quince when I was old.”
For this production, Epstein is excited about Lafeber, who stands more than 6 feet tall. She plays Helena, the “painted maypole” who towers over a jealous Hermia.
“Temperamentally, she’s a perfect Helena, and she’s naturally funny,” Epstein says. “This is an actor who’s going to be playing Helena for a long time, and I get to be her first director.”
Selby Gardens will be a natural setting for the production. There will be seats for 180 audience members at each performance, and the cast will be unamplified, which can be daunting for young actors.
“You don’t shout outside,” Epstein tells them. “You just resonate more.”
“Midsummer” will be the first Shakespeare play for Hamilton, who’s done a lot of musical theater.
Learning lots of dialogue is a big challenge. Working with Epstein is a little intimidating.
“Every day for me is like a church service,” Hamilton says. “He knows every single word. It’s coming out of his pores. It puts pressure on you to dig deep, because he’ll call you on it.”
The Asolo cast is also a class of students who have worked closely for more than a year.
Hennelly is friends with Babin, who plays Demetrius. In “Midsummer,” they are two of the young lovers manipulated by fairies as they squabble over the same woman. Things are better backstage.
“We can tease each other outside of rehearsal,” Hennelly says. “It gives you a sort of joy to be mean to each other on stage. It makes it fun.”
Spencer, who plays Bottom, has been in Shakespeare productions of The Tempest and Measure for Measure. Her first exposure to “Midsummer” was the play-within-a-play during a teen movie called Get Over It from 2001.
“The frequency that this movie pops into my head is embarrassing,” Spencer says.
A friend at Asolo encouraged her to audition for Bottom. A woman playing the male character gives the part a little more meaning. It’s a big role that she tries to play with passion.
“She is me,” Spencer says. “She’s very much in me.”
Selby Gardens should be a remarkable setting for “Midsummer.” The stage will be behind the Payne Mansion, with the audience facing west onto Sarasota Bay.
In front of the bay, there’s a small pond and a live oak growing at an odd angle. The only problem is that Selby trees are protected, so actors won’t be dangling from limbs or anything like that.
“Sadly, we can’t go into the lake, either,” Epstein says. “I would have loved to go into the lake.”
The comedy remains a crowd-pleaser, though, for audiences of all ages.
Older fans may savor the language of Shakespeare.
“I get to say ‘The course of true love never did run smooth,’” says Hennelly. “That one’s a winner.”
Middle-aged fans might appreciate Shakespeare’s observations on love and marriage, jealousy and spite, identity and change.
Generations of young fans have been inspired by Shakespeare’s magic and fairies and music and dancing.
“This is no joke,” Epstein says. “There are three actors I know who are actors today because they saw Midsummer Night’s Dream.”