For director, theater and cast, the woods are magic

Posted: Thursday, December 09, 2004

For his directorial debut at Perseverance Theatre, Artistic Director PJ Paparelli has chosen William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," one of the Bard's few plays that sprung directly from his imagination.

The story follows the lovers Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander as they journey from the city to the magical forest and back, thus completing a cycle of self-revelation and transformation.

Paparelli sees it as a fine metaphor for the theater's continuing renovation, as well as his own move from Washington, D.C., to Juneau.

"I'm coming from a big city and moving to a small natural environment, a forest so to speak. It's the same idea as the lovers moving from the big city to the woods," Paparelli said.

"It's about different types of people, different ages, different backgrounds, different loves, the mechanicals, the rustics, the fairies, all coming together in the woods," he said. "They learn so much about themselves from each other, and it's sort of what I hope happens to myself in Juneau. It's also the perfect metaphor for what Perseverance is going through."

"Midsummer" opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 10, and shows 19 times through Sunday, Jan. 16. See the calendar on page 2 for a complete list of dates.

The play stars 21 actors from throughout the theater's 25-year history: 12-year-old McLean Cannon (Francis Flute, and son of theater veteran Jack Cannon) to 83-year-old Kay Smith (Robin Starveling, and mother of theater founder Molly Smith).

The set is designed with a stark, minimalist background of black, white, green and then black fabric. The action includes extensive flying scenes for Puck (Rory Merritt Stitt), Titania, the Fairy Queen (Marta Lastufka) and the four fairies.

"I've watched artistic directors have bad first plays, and I've also seen art directors have huge success in their first play and never be able to top that," Paparelli said.

"Once we got the cast, I thought our approach would be simple because there's no furniture and no levels and all that stuff," he said. "It's actually one of the most technical things I've done."

Paparelli has presented "A Midsummer Night's Dream" once before. Just out of undergraduate school at Carnegie Mellon, it was the first play he directed at Pittsburgh Public Theater.

"There was nobody older than 22 in the production, and I didn't really understand and appreciate the language as much as I do now," Paparelli said. "After spending so much time with Shakespeare over the years, and learning how incredible the language is and how the structure of it works, I trust the play much more."

Paparelli spent about seven years (1998-2004) at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., where the company produced three Shakespeare plays a year. He's freelance directed Shakespeare all over the country - St. Louis, New York and Baltimore, among other places.

"I've done four 'Twelfth Nights,' I've done 'Hamlet' three times, every time it's different," Paparelli said.

"This play is so different than it was for me 10 years ago," he said. "I was going through a change then; I was a director wanting to go out and put my stamp on the world. Now I feel like I'm in the woods, and there's magic all around. That magic is potentiality. You have the feeling that you can do anything here in Alaska, and that's certainly how the lovers feel. They go into the woods, and they're going to do these great things."

Set designer Sheila Wyne, a visual artist in Anchorage, designed "Working" and "Winesburg" during the 2002-2003 season and also worked on "The Turn of the Screw" for Opera to GO! Though Lynde's degree is in literature, "Midsummer" is her first crack at Shakespeare.

"Typically I'm doing much more contemporary works because my designs aren't period pieces and I like working more conceptually," Wyne said. "I have to find directors that like to do the same sort of thing, and PJ definitely has that sort of strength."

They created a minimalistic set, so as to not distract the audience from the language of the play.

"We were trying to set up an environment that the language can really live in," Wyne said. "The set sort of works as an onion skin. It has very stark layers to it and begins to peel itself away. We go from what I think of as a black scene to the white scene to the green scene and back to a black scene."

New York City-based Filipino composer Fabian Obispo, who was already in town to write the score for the theater's spring musical "The Long Season," wrote the music for "Midsummer." He and Paparelli met this spring while collaborating on "Richard III" at The Juillard School.

Dan Covey, the lighting designer for "Midsummer," will join Paparelli and Obispo for an upcoming production of "Romeo and Juliet" in Washington, D.C. Rehearsals begin on Sunday.

"I like having collaborators that I've worked with," Paparelli said. "It's all about trust, and I trust the both of them. That's what I wanted for this show: to work with a group of actors that I will continue to work with."

The cast includes Theater In The Rough co-founders Aaron Elmore (Theseus) and Katie Jensen (Hippolyta), who have traditionally staged at least one Shakespeare play a year at McPhetres Hall. Paparelli saw their version of "As You Like It" when he visited town last spring.

"I really was very excited about the fact that they were producing Shakespeare here, and of course, I was worried that they would have felt like there was competition or that kind of thing."

"Immediately I sat down and said, 'I'd love for the two of you to be in this,'" he said. "They haven't been back at the theater together in a long time, and I hope they will continue to come for every opportunity I can find for them."

Kay Smith, 83, was last seen on-stage in the 25th anniversary presentation of "Pure Gold" last December. Before that, her last appearance was Little Theatre's presentation of "Arsenic and Old Lace" in 1998.

She's facing an extra challenge. After accepting the part, she broke her arm on the hill outside her house.

"I love theater, of course," Smith said. "It's like doing another one for the gipper."

"I guess I wanted to prove something," she said, "but getting back on, I didn't expect to have these extra challenges."

Lastufka has worked with Perseverance for more than 20 years but has not been on-stage in three years.

Her last performance at the theater was in Madeline Olnek's "Wild Nights with Emily" during the 1999-2000 season. While pregnant three years ago, she acted in "Agamemnon and His Daughters," under the direction of Molly Smith in Washington, D.C.

Now 40, she has a 6-month-old baby and a 212 year-old son. This is her first experience in a Shakespeare play.

"I wasn't even thinking about the theater, but when PJ started talking about bringing in the old guard and all these young ones, I just got very excited about it," she said.

"For me, it's been a transition," she said. "The last time I performed I was single and had no children. I have a lot of friends that have done theater with tiny children, but I swear to God I don't know how. My daughter is pretty much only nursing. My husband is a saint. It's six weeks, six days a week. I feel like I've lost three-fourths of my brain since the last time, and all my concentration. But it's good for me, the play not being the most important thing in my life. I think it's good for the work."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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