For their tenth anniversary, the Rude Mechanicals have returned to their roots, planning new productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, two plays they performed back in 2003. Those shows took place on the Presidential Pavilion near the Ferguson Plaza under the conceit of a traveling theater troupe; the audience awaited the arrival of the actors who marched up singing “500 Miles Away from Home.” Realizing at the end of the first performance that they needed a parallel tune for their exit, Mark Hughes Cobb made a spur of the moment choice: “500 Miles” by the Proclaimers.
That song has remained the troupe’s signature sign off piece, but in the intervening decade a lot has changed; the performances now take place at Manderson Landing by the river, the company performs an entertaining half hour of songs beforehand, and the cast list for this year’s Midsummer contained several children not even born when the group first performed. What remains unchanged year to year, however, is the energy generated by amateur actors performing simply because they love the thrill of being on stage and the theatrical power of Shakespeare.
This energy works particularly well for Midsummer, a play best performed at a breakneck pace. Some productions of the play, for example, suffer from a staid opening few scenes. Here, however, under the direction of Steve Burch, the four mismatched lovers go big from their first moments of the play. Lysander (Jerrell Bowden) and Demetrius (Joey Gamble) bring out the petulant immaturity of their characters, bickering and mocking each other relentlessly. Even Egeus, usually just played as a cranky, severe old man, is here portrayed by Wescott Youngson as a red-faced, shouting bully that actually throws his daughter to the ground.
The two female lovers, Hermia (Molly Page) and Helena (Natalie Hopper), steal much of the limelight, however. In her performance of a character too often played weak and mooney, Page is strong and willful, strenuously arguing with her father and then energetically plotting with Lysander for their escape into the wilds outside the city. In fact, it seems to be this dynamism that attracts Lysander and Demetrius to her and away from Helena, played by Hopper with a fragile stoicism concealing a bubbling anger. Helena’s anguished “I am ugly as a bear” when she is alone in the woods shows a woman that has missed the point of her unpopularity. All this frustration bursts to the surface, however, once the lovers start pursuing her; her calm evaporates, replaced with confusion and finally fury as she is forced into slapstick battle against the crazed, literally grab-assing lovers.
Burch double-casts the ruling pair in Athens and the fairy world in this play; Elliot Moon plays both Theseus and Oberon while Exa Johnston does double duty as Hippolyta and Titania. Such a casting emphasizes the continuity between the real and the mystic kingdoms, just as Titania’s extended description of the disorder created by the fight between the Fairy King and Queen demonstrates how order in the natural world and its converse both flow from the top. In this production, however, it seems that little likely gets done even in the best of times; Moon plays Oberon as an almost juvenile mischief-maker, far more interested in pranking his wife and sharing secret handshakes with his servant Puck (Russell Frost) than making peace. Frost’s Puck brings an astonishing level of energy to the stage; his eyes fly in the direction of every gesture, his face shifts wildly at every comment, and Oberon literally has to hold him back when giving orders in order to finish giving instructions. While Oberon consistently displays bafflement at the behavior of humans, Puck shows a childish glee, as if every experience is radically new.
Finally, there are the “rude mechanicals,” the would-be thespians that gave this Tuscaloosa troupe its name those ten years ago. This band of craftsmen holds the key to many of the play’s laughs, particularly in the riotous final scene, and this group does not disappoint; even on opening night when some of the jokes in the rest of the play did not quite land, the final act had audience members nearly doubled over in laughter. Mark Hughes Cobb channels his best overacting bluster in his performance of Bottom, but it is Melanie Williams as Francis Flute that pulls the biggest laughs. It can be a slightly tricky role; Flute, tasked with the responsibility of playing the gentle Thisbe despite his protestations that he has “a beard coming,” often gets lost behind the boisterous Bottom. Williams perfectly portrays Flute as so completely unaware of what is going on that he does not see anything wrong with Bottom’s transformation until everyone around him starts to panic. Williams’ hilariously overcompensating hip sway, made funnier still by the meta effect of the double gender switch, had the audience howling. Each of the mechanicals precisely engages in the inverse of good acting to terrific effect, from Deborah Parker and Nic Helms’ astonishing line scansion as Quince and Starveling, through Snout’s (Charles Prosser) inability to walk five steps without tripping, to the ham-fistedly executed concluding double suicide. Thankfully, their namesakes, Tuscaloosa’s own Rude Mechanicals, are both far more skilled and self-aware; may they continue bringing their own brand of “tragical mirth” to town for decades to come.
As part of their 10th anniversary season, The Rude Mechanicals will also be performing Twelfth Night June 27-30. Admission is free.
Photos by John Earl.