Theatre in the Rough begins their 20th season this week in a production that, like the company itself, celebrates the power of creative imagination.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one of Shakespeare’s most popular works, opens Friday with a 7:30 p.m. performance at McPhetres Hall; a pay-as-you-will preview performance will be offered at 7:30 p.m. tonight.
The play marks the start of the company’s first full season in the recently rebuilt McPhetres, located on the ground floor of Holy Trinity Church. It will feature elements the company has long been known for — storytelling, Shakespeare, the shared pleasures of theatrical performance — as well as others they’ve been perfecting along the road — dancing, puppetry and masks.
Theatre in the Rough staged the play once before, in 1992; it was their third production and first Shakespearean play. Then as now the play was directed by Aaron Elmore, co-founder of the company with Katie Jensen. Elmore said coming back to the work after 20 years, and returning to Shakespeare after a season without, has been a hugely satisfying experience.
“It’s like coming home,” he said.
Though intimately familiar with the play, Elmore said this production has offered many surprises, even revelations, about how to approach it. The key, he said, was for the troupe to go beyond their personal and cultural familiarity with the rhythms and themes of the text and dig into what is actually written in the work.
“It’s certainly a danger that we’d repeat ourselves, ... (but) I’ve been delighted and overjoyed to discover that our main function is to find out the truth, what the true desires of the characters are, and go after that with all our might and main,” he said.
“Everything that you really need is right there in the words.”
In many cases, Elmore said, this led to fresh ideas about the way certain lines or scenes could be approached.
“Last night we discovered the true essence of a scene that I have never seen done that way,” he said. “That happened over and over in this process.”
In the play, Theseus, Duke of Athens, (Eddie Jones) is preparing to marry Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Jensen). As he is planning the wedding festivities, the Duke is approached by Egeus (Becky Orford), who is struggling to make his daughter Hermia (Becca Gaguine) comply with his wishes for her to marry Demetrius (Fisher Stevens); Hermia prefers Lysander (Carl Brodersen). Hermia and Lysander take off to elope, but they are followed into the woods by Demetrius, who loves Hermia, and Helena (Megan Behnke), who loves Demetrius.
Once in the woods, the foursome comes across a band of faieres, led by their king and queen, Oberon (Jones) and Titania (Jensen). Also in the woods is a group of amateur actors — Quince (Becky Orford), Bottom (Elmore), Flute (Ben Krall), Snug (Natalia Spengler) and Snout (Ariana Orford) — who are rehearsing a play in the hopes of being able to perform it for the Duke and his bride.
“And, since this is a comedy, they get to,” Elmore said.
Getting to play an earnestly awful actor was an enjoyable – if slightly frightening – experience, Elmore said.
“The amount of resonance between Bottom’s character and myself is really pretty terrible,” he said with a laugh.
While the actors rehearse, Oberon, angry with Titania, orders Puck (Doniece Gott) to give the queen a love potion. Puck complies, but also anoints Lysander. When Titania awakes, she sees Bottom, and promptly falls in love with him (despite the fact that he’s been given a donkey’s head by the mischievous Puck) and Lysander falls for Helena.
Oberon figures out what’s going on and orders Puck to make everyone fall asleep while the spell wears off. Order is restored, all four couples are happy, and the duke’s wedding goes forward, with the amateur actors performing their play at the ceremony.
Many scholars believe Shakespeare wrote the play to be performed as entertainment for a real wedding. The play is often cited as being one of the playwright’s truly original creations — in many cases, he drew on existing texts for his stories — and is widely celebrated for the the lyricism of its language.
Elmore said a quarter of the actors in Theatre in the Rough’s production are under 18, and that witnessing the passion with which these young actors approach the language and the work itself has been another exciting aspect of the experience for him.
“We get a chance to help form their artistic aesthetic and also their skills at this stage of their vocation.” he said.
The cast also includes actors who have worked with the company for more than a decade.
Elmore and Jensen’s company has done 32 productions, including 15 of Shakespeare’s 38 works. Elmore said at one time they set themselves a goal of producing the whole body of the Bard’s work, just to say they could, but that he now believes not all the plays are right for them or this venue.
“This author is incredible, but not all of his work appeals to us,” he said, adding that some of the works are simply too large or too dense.
Instead, Elmore and Jensen have learned to approach each project individually, making a passion for the work their guiding force.
“You cant do a play — or shouldn’t be doing a play — unless you are absolutely on fire to do it, and know that is absolutely right for you and for the town.”
In November, Theatre in the Rough will expand their audience for this production to include Petersburg, following a recent request from the Petersburg Arts Council. Though the company has traveled sporadically in the past — to Haines, Seattle and other locations — Elmore said this project could signal a more definite move outward in the future.
“It feels like exactly the sort of thing we should be doing,” he said.
After being wanderers for so long, having a home-base at McPhetres makes the idea of travel more reasonable, he said.
“Now that we have a home, we can roam a bit.”
“A MIdsummer Night’s Dream runs from Oct. 14 through Nov. 6 in Juneau.
For more information, visit theatreintherough.org.