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Midsummer of Love at We Players - poster

“Lady, shall I lie upon your lap?”
“No, my lord.”
“I mean my head upon your lap?”
“Ay, my lord.”
“Do you think I meant country matters?”

Hamlet, Act III, Sc. 2, 101-105

I never imagined that my first We Players show would remind me so much of a show I did six years ago. Back then, I was in a production of Twelfth Night that was performed in the middle of a lush Bay Area location appropriately named Woodside. Far removed from SF, all of our matinee shows got the kind of sun rarely experienced in the Bay Area; the kind that lets you know what summer actually feels like (kinda – it coulda been a lot hotter). Still, it was a fun time leading the audience through the woods.

In some ways, We Players’ new production was like the flipped mirror image of the above: I was watching instead of performing; the production was geared much more towards adults; and the show was pulled off in the shivering cold fog of atop Golden Gate Park’s Strawberry Hill. I think the audience found enough to enjoy, but a lot of them clearly didn’t prepare for the unusually-warm week to end with them freezing in SF (one young woman was in a red, ruffled Latin dress).

But we were in no position to complain. You see, as chilly as all of us were, we at least had the luxury of dressing in layers upon layers. The actors we watched were often adorned in only longjohns, sleeveless leather tops, or – in the case of actor John Steele, Jr. – a BDSM bra. For this was a kink-inspired adaptation of one of The Bard’s most popular plays. As such, the sight of perky nipples may have been the goal, rather than just a side effect.

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Oberon and Titania. Demetrius and Helena. Lysander and Hermia. Bottom and Puck. All of the characters of Shakespeare’s classic comedy are here. But this time all of brimming sexual tension is brought bubbling to the surface.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of San Francisco’s famous “Summer of Love,” We Players presents a new production of the Elizabethan classic, infused with all the sexual energy one would expect from the City by the Bay.

A lot of lines are blurred in this show: gender; the space between audience and performer; even the distinction between reality and fantasy are tougher to pinpoint than usual. In addition to using a mere six actors to pull off the script 20-or-so speaking roles, adaptor/director Ava Roy also moves Bottom’s “awakening” soliloquy to end of the play. This leaves one wondering whether everything we just saw was a play-within-a-play… within-a-play; that the entire adventure may have just been a mad fantasy. Two days later and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that decision, although I get where it’s coming from.

Then there’s the fact that the geography of the adaptation’s title never comes into play (save for one instance when it’s uttered aloud). Other than the fact that we were watching the show atop GG Park, there’s nothing specifically “San Francisco” about it, let alone “Summer of Love” (all of the clothing is pretty contemporary, if outlandish). I get that they wanted to tie the show into the anniversary, but it does so in name only.

Nevertheless, the show does work in exploring the overt sexuality of the characters. In addition to the aforementioned BDSM gear, “prop artisan” Tina Na Wang adorns the cast in an entire Good Vibrations-gift-card’s worth of chains, collars, and cuffs. Every potential innuendo is played up like “Mrs. Slocombe’s pussy” from Are You Being Served? And any chance to contort the actors together as if they were playing “Twister” is taken.

And yet, what I really liked was Roy’s handling of the scenes with the players. Like the acting troupe scenes from Hamlet, it’s easy to Shakespeare deftly commenting on his own profession with a mixture of affection and anger – something Tom Stoppard would expound upon in Rosencrantz and Guildenster are Dead and even Shakespeare in Love. Roy’s version – in which she plays director Quince – perfectly convey the frustrations every director knows of trying to wrangle actors (I know I do).

This over-the-top sexuality and theatrical insight give the play its high points.

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Roy clearly had fun with her cast and crew, which is probably why she decided to join in as Quince, Helena, Hermia’s father, and – in one scene showing off this professional yoga instructor’s skills – the brick wall between Pyramus and Thisbe. As I’ve mentioned, I’m often wary of directors who star in their own works, as it’s often a vanity move. Yet Roy makes adequate use of both her space and performers, most of them schooled in physical training.

It would take too long for me to single them all out, but I must mention actors John Steele and Britt Lauer share the role of Puck, which means every live version of Midsummer I’ve ever seen – including my high school production in which I played Bottom – has had Puck played by a woman and the first I’ve seen in which it’s played by a man. Given that the character is essentially asexual (with only one gender-specific line, which is easy to change), this has always just made sense. Here, the difference is that Puck is now two and possibly pansexual. Steele and Lauer also star as both Theseus and Hippolyta, as well as gender-swapped versions of Titania (him) and Oberon (her) presenting an interesting play on the script’s gender roles.

And I can tell costume mistress Brooke Jennings had fun dressing her cast, especially the, shall we say, florally phallic choice for the transformed Bottom. (He has a flower donkey-dick; there, I said it!) The choice to distinguish the faerie king and queen from Puck by having them flip their black leather around to colorful patterns was an inspired choice. I think I get what composer Charlie Gurke was going for with his score – performed by two live trombonists – but it was pretty distracting and repetitive; it always sounded as if the musicians were about to break out into Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good”. All in all, not too bad, tech-wise.

Having performed Midsummer as a teen, I was always curious how the adults let us get away with it once I later realized the sexuality between the lines. But that’s just it: it’s usually between the lines. If one wants to look at this play as a light rom-com, that works. If one wants to follow We Players’ example and read it as a full-blown sex farce, that works just as well.

Just remember to bring a coat – those chilly nipples won’t hide themselves.

GRADE:                B

Midsummer of Love is scheduled to run until the 30th of July at Golden Gate Park’s Strawberry Hill in San Francisco and Kennedy Grove in El Sobrante.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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