I got hooked on the taiko drumming in the early scenes of Theater Mu's A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is propulsive stuff to mix into an Elizabethan comedy, and I found myself wanting more of it—before realizing that the spectacle of requesting more taiko during a show would be the equivalent of standing up and demanding more cowbell.
Recent Theater Mu productions have generally been staged on a limited scale, with more attention paid to character and language than visual expression. A Midsummer Night's Dream, by contrast, delivers a large-scale set and elaborate costumes. The plot is familiar: He loves her, she loves him. He loves somebody else, you just can't win. Stymied lovers Hermia (Katie Bradley) and Lysander (John Catron) sensibly run away to the forest for the purposes of elopement, but soon they fall under the influence of fairy magic, along with love-crossed youngsters Helena (Mayano Ochi) and Demetrius (Allen Malisci). Logic goes the way of the mind-altering substances that the various players unwittingly ingest. (Inform your local D.A.R.E. representative!)
Sherwin Resurreccion and Jeany Park each tackle two parallel roles—essentially the aristocracy of the human and fairy realms. Resurreccion brings a wry, subversive sensibility to the part, and Park is both regal and ethereal as needed. Catron and Malisci, for their part, win laughs when their besotted characters experience magically induced ardor, slithering on the floor and baring chests in a parody of a male mating display.
At its heart this is a story about being transported to non-human realms in which our senses become unreliable. Here, consistent with Mu's mission, the notion is abetted by the sights and sounds of Asian stage forms. Director Rick Shiomi employs Korean mask dance, Kabuki sword fighting, and that irresistible taiko drumming to frame the production without overwhelming it. And Sandra Agustin's choreography, though delivered in discrete vignettes, enhances rather than stalls the action.
This isn't a production that demonstrates an extraordinary command of 16th-century language, and a glance over the cast bios reveals little in the way of Shakespeare credits. This play, in particular, is so lyrical and metrically structured that much of the dialogue amounts to on-the-fly poetry recitation. Nonetheless, Shiomi's cast finds a tone of cutting fun that pulls things through. This is especially true in the final sequence, a farcical play by rube Nick Bottom (Eric Sharp). I'm not sure that this degree of hamminess has any precedent in Eastern drama. Here in the West, stealing so many scenes could get you booked for larceny.
You keep waiting for Educating Rita to descend into cliché, but it never happens. Stacia Rice and Jeffrey Hatcher star in Willy Russell's late-'70s story of a working-class hairdresser with higher aspirations and the alcoholic professor, Frank, who helps her get there, sort of. Rice gradually lays on the polish that comes with Rita's transformation. Hatcher—better known around town as a successful playwright and screenwriter—is convincing as a character whose only apparent exertions involve his elbow and his liver.
What keeps matters from turning treacly is the smartness of Russell's script, which explores the misconceptions on either side of the class divide without getting all polemical about it. Hatcher's prof is initially guilty of idealizing working-class life (the underclass is so uncomplicatedly happy, or haven't you noticed?). And Rita puts too much stock in "the empty quotes and phrases" that Frank points out have done little to quell his dipsomania. Under Sarah Gioia's direction there is a subtle interplay between the two characters, with a note of mutual flirtation brimming just beneath the surface of their ebbing and flowing fortunes. At the end, the viewer leaves with the real sense that the two actors have been genuinely amused by each other—and the audience shares in the feeling.