What I learned. . .

This was my eighth or ninth production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I actually thought I’d directed the play more times than that, but that’s the total at which I arrived when I stopped to count up them all.  The good news is that it’s a nearly perfect play, one that provides actors, designers, tech staff and their director with plentiful challenges, and no matter how many times I’ve gotten to work on it, I’ve always learned something new – and always had a ball being in the room with the words, the story, and the people who may be returning to the play for a second, third, or fourth time, who may be playing a different role than one they’d played before, or who may be discovering the play for the very first time.  As popular as Dream is, it’s always a little surprising to find out for whom a production is their maiden voyage.

Steve Woolf , Mark Bernstein, and Edward Coffield (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Artistic Director, Managing Director, and Production Director, respectively) were exceedingly generous in their support of this outing to the woods near Athens.  We assembled a first-rate design team: Jim Kronzer (sets), with whom I’d been eager to work ever since we collaborated on a production of Brighton Beach Memoirs at Pioneer Theatre Company nearly a decade prior; Susan Branch Towne (costumes), with whom I’d worked on two previous productions of the play and numerous other large-scale projects; Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz (lights), who I first worked with at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and who is our resident lighting designer at the Great River Shakespeare Festival; Matt Williams, a former student from PCPA days, now a highly respected and accomplished choreographer based in New York City; and Barry G. Funderburg, a sound designer and composer with whom I’d worked on productions of Dream at American Players Theatre and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, but with whom it had been a long spell since our last shared assignment.

Add to that many of the experienced, accomplished hands that comprise the Rep’s permanent staff (Marci Franklin, costume shop supervisor; John Metzner, wig and hair designer – and the costume designer for the first production of the play I directed on the Loretto-Hilton stage, this one for Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts; Garth Dunbar, costume crafts supervisor; Kelli Kreutzberg, properties director; Nichelle Williams, technical director), and we could not have been in better hands.

When we first gathered to share design ideas for the production, I had sent advance thoughts about the play – mostly, that whatever period we chose for this Dream, it should be a good one for underwear, as I think the trappings of the restrictive world away from which the four lovers in the play run, need to be divested the deeper into the night and into the woods they travel – and therefore, the world they’re fleeing needs to be paternalistic, militaristic, and confining.  Working from these notions, Susan came equipped with images from the Regency period as a launch pad for discussions, and though I find the Regency particularly attractive for men (handsome; romantic), I think it’s a little dull for women (all due respect to Jane Austen and her numerous interpreters).  Plus, the Rep had recently staged productions of “Emma,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Sense and Sensibility” – so I thought audiences might be a little “Regency’d-out.”

But it was Susan’s collection of high fashion images that really caught my eye and led us to the look for this particular Dream.  She had included some outlandish runway silhouettes and fabrics as a departure point for the world of the fairies (or “supernaturals” as I prefer to think of them), and after studying them, we opted to explore our own invented period, rooted in classical silhouettes, but created out of contemporary fabrics, most of which harkened to the natural world.  We settled on “late Victorian with a twist,” as Susan deemed it; the results of her creativity and imagination are reflected in the photo collages in the gallery sections of this site.

I also talked about the role of forgiveness in Dream, and how a key moment, often overlooked – not just in my own productions but in others that I’ve seen – happens in Act IV, when Duke Theseus and his pre-wedding hunting party come upon the four lovers in the woods.  Rather than punishing them according to the harsh and ancient Athenian law as Hermia’s father, Egeus, demands, Theseus chooses forgiveness, lets the lovers off the hook, and hastily arranges their marriages, to take place simultaneously with his and Hippolyta’s.  Thus, Theseus moves from Old Testament punishment to New Testament forgiveness, establishing a new world order and making it possible for Hippolyta to feel confident about her alliance with her former enemy, soon-to-become husband. (Mythology, of course, teaches us that their happiness was short-lived, but Shakespeare isn’t particularly concerned with those follow-up details.)

Key to our success, however, was the Rep’s agreeing to bring in six actors three days early, ahead of the arrival of the rest of the cast.  I was able to get much table work and staging accomplished with Oberon/Theseus (Alvin Keith), Puck/Philostrtae (Jim Poulos), Demetrius (Andy Rindlisbach), Helena (Gracyn Mix), Lysander (Jeffrey Omura), and Hermia (Caroline Amos) before the rest of the company came to town, which meant we were able to put all of Shakespeare’s Act III, Scene ii (the play’s centerpiece and it’s longest and most complicated scene) on its feet before the full cast settled in to rehearsals.  This proved a real advantage when it came time for Matt Williams to choreograph the hallucinatory-like dance that I hoped would become a memorable climax for the production, as it took a significant amount of time working with a company of 20 actors to set and finesse Matt’s wonderful choreography.

A sidebar delight to the casting of the production, in addition to getting to work with six terrific students from the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts’s training program, several professional actors with whom I had already-established working relationships and a passel of actors who were brand new to me, was that Gracyn and Caroline (Helena and Hermia) were both veterans of the Great River Shakespeare Festival’s Apprentice Actor Training Program.  Getting to work with them in a new and different professional setting was immensely fun and completely gratifying.

Some production reviews seem to convey the notion that there isn’t a director overseeing the work, but more frequently, it’s the designers who are overlooked and who remain unmentioned in reviews. I’m pleased to say that this was not the case with Dream.  The production reviews were uniformly rapturous, and just about every single one of them cited the entire design team for their vibrant, imaginative, and beautiful work.  This was one of those experiences for which we set the bar particularly high and managed to achieve or exceed our goals in every single instance: design, casting, production values, and performance.  I couldn’t have been more gratified – and though this A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be difficult to top, I look forward to the opportunity that comes my way to hang out with this gorgeous, challenging play.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Rep Theatre of St. Louis

October, 2014

Jeffrey Omura, Gracyn Mix, Caroline Amos,

Andy Rindlisbach

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and accessible plays.  The current production at the Repertory Theatre brings to life many of the features that explain its continuing appeal over the last 400 years.

“Director Paul Mason Barnes says his aim is to ‘ultimately just serve the playwright’ and by working ‘to understand Shakespeare’s words as specifically as possible’ to make the text comprehensible to modern audiences.  He admirably succeeds in creating a well-paced production that brings out both the comedy and commentary on the human condition that are inherent in this play.

“It is very clear that both the director and actors understand the words and intent of the script, something which is sadly lacking in many productions of Shakespeare.

“. . . this was an accessible, engaging and entertaining production that someone new to or returning to Shakespeare’s great comedy will enjoy.”

     Robert Ashton


“Sometimes Shakespeare productions suggest that the director was inspired by a single line, a line that becomes the touchstone for his or her whole concept of the play.

“And sometimes, it’s simply one word.

“For this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that just opened at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, director Paul Mason Barnes seems to have picked the word ‘cobweb.’

“Cobweb is the name of one of the sprites who attend on the Midsummer fairy queen, Titania.  Cobwebs are a favorite ingredient in magic spells, too.  And cobwebs can be beautiful, a natural phenomenon so fragile that they look as if they must have been made by . . . well, by fairies.

“That kind of imagery flows through Barnes’ production.  Scenic designer James Kronzer and lighting designer Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz fill the fairies’ woods with tall trees, mysteriously glowing from within beneath a sky that seems to drip with lace.  Costume designer Susan Branch Towne dresses young women in the delicate white underthings of the 1800s, while the high-ranking nobles of the Athenian court sport spidery embroidery on rich cloaks and jackets.  Similar designs spread across the fairy-folk’s arms and faces.

“Does a theme emerge?

“It’s an apt one for this classic romantic comedy, a complicated tale of delicate connections of the heart.

“Barnes and his polished cast expertly ‘weave together’ the story’s separate threads.  Barnes’s earlier work at the Rep includes the wonderful 2012 production of The Comedy of Errors.  Remember how he handled the ‘fistfights’ in that show, with clever mimes in which no actor ever laid a hand on another?  He does something similar in Midsummer, letting the fairies cast their magic spells by some kind of telekinesis.  It’s complete invisible and absolutely lucid.

“Puck, of course, gets the last word.  If we didn’t enjoy the play, he says, pretend it was just a dream—in other words, a cobweb of the mind.”

     Judith Newmark

     St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rep is truly a transporting production.  Done with great love, care, energy, humor, and beauty, this very determined show quickly engages the audience on a level of colorful imagination and whimsy that is irresistible.”

     Harry Hamm


“A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps the most whimsical of Shakespeare’s works, as well as among the more accessible to those less familiar with Shakespeare.  I sometimes think of it as ‘entry level Shakespeare’ as a reflection of its accessibility.  It’s frequently performed at all levels—from schools to community theatres to professional companies—all around the world.  Strong production values can add a lot of sumptuous detail to this play, and in the latest production at the Rep, the technical details are the forefront in a bright, well-choreographed presentation that emphasizes physical comedy and a lighthearted spirit.

“The atmosphere here is of colorful frivolity, with dynamic staging and hilarious physical comedy sequences.  As good as the cast is, however, the most prominent successes of this production are in the sheer brilliance of its technical elements.  With a glittery, colorful, almost cartoonish set designed by James Kronzer, and distinctive, 19th Century-influenced costumes by Susan Branch Towne, this production brings Shakespeare’s whimsy to life with style.  And that’s just the visuals.  The sound and music, designed and composed by Barry G. Funderburg, is seamlessly integrated into the production in a wonderfully synchronized way.  When Oberon, Puck, or any of the other ‘fairy’ characters exercises ‘magic power’, the accompanying sounds and movements are thoroughly convincing. It’s a dynamic blend of sight, sound, and movement that adds to the overall energy and entertainment value of this fun production.

“I don’t want to overuse the word ‘whimsical’, although it really is the best word I can think of to describe this play, and especially this particular production.  The Rep has brought us A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is at once organized and flighty, energetic and visually gorgeous.  It’s Shakespeare for people who might think they don’t like Shakespeare, as well as for well-established fans of the Bard.  Most of all, it’s just plain fun, and that’s wonderful.”

     Michelle Kenyon

     Snoop’s Theatre Thoughts

One of Shakespeare's most oft produced comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, takes us to that dream world with a stunning cast, a beautifully rendered set, and clever direction at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.  Paul Mason Barnes, our Shakespeare guru who charmed us with his ‘Nawlins rendition of another classic, A Comedy of Errors, a few years ago, delights us again with a flawless production of this one, set mainly in a wood near Athens.

“Director . . . Barnes weaves this magical tale with what appears to be a magical wand.  He’s ably assisted by choreographer Matt Willliams.  James Kronzer has added another strong character in the guise of his brilliant scene design.  Along with lighting designer Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, the forest literally shimmers with clarity and depth.  Barry  G. Funderburg adds a strong sound design that includes magical moments when Puck, Oberon and others mime their other-worldly moves throughout the play.  It creates a world unlike any you’ve ever seen.”

     Steve Allen

     Stage Door STL

“Immediately striking in this production are the costumes.  The Athenian garb in the first scene dazzles with leaf-patterned pants and jackets that match on the men, gorgeous flowing white dresses with similar outdoor patterns on the women.  These subtle hints of our time in the woods to come is one reason why the costumes are the star of this show.  I cannot say enough good things about the work of Susan Branch Towne, the costume designer.  Many productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream rely on generically leafy dresses for the fairies, but the fairy costumes in this production were gorgeous and unique.  The fairy men and women had intricate designs up and down their arms and legs and lots of beautifully textured fabrics for their clothing.  Oberon’s cape lent a gravitas to his role that would have been hard to attain without it and Titania’s flowing multi-colored skirt was perfect for a queen.  Also stunning were the wire masks that the fairies wore.  These gave the illusion of more design weaving around their faces and added to the magic and the mystery.

“Overall, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was dazzling and fun.  I would recommend it to Shakespeare lovers, but especially to anyone who loves design, as this production is an amazing sight to behold.”

     Emily Scharf

     Playback STL

“As we head into winter, a welcome balmy breeze is on stage at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, as they present a vigorous version of William Shakespeare’s bewitching comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“Director Paul Mason Barnes spikes the show with good humor and focuses on the magic in the moonlight.

“The production values are always impeccable at the Rep, and this play is particularly suited for breathtaking moments.  The deceptively simple set design by James Kronzer accentuates a lush forest, brilliantly enhanced with colors.  The lighting design by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz is exquisite.

“Barry G. Funderburg composed original music that enhances the romantic frolic, and also designed the crisp, fluid sound.  Susan Branch Towne brings a freshness to her first costume designs for the Rep.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an intoxicating mix of style and fantasy, joyous entertaiment that sends one into a chilly evening with a warm smile.”

     Lynn Venhaus

     Belleville News Democrat

“If I were asked to provide the perfect introduction to the work of playwright William Shakespeare I would advise that person to check out the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Unlike the bard’s histories or tragedies, this play is truly lyrical, funny, and filled with magical elements that make it especially appealing.  It’s also one of his few tales that isn’t based on another source, springing with startling originality from his own fervid imagination, which makes it particularly special among his bountiful canon.  It seems like I’m always saying this about the Rep, but they provide must-see entertainment on a regular basis, with this enchanting presentation acting as another fine example of their exemplary work.

“Director Paul Mason Barnes has a real gift for staging Shakespeare in imaginative and creative ways that entice the viewer and enhance the surroundings, and his efforts here are exceptional.  Aided by the playful choreography of Matt Williams, the evocative scenic design of James Kronzer, Susan Branch Towne’s lovely costumes, the atmospheric lighting of Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, and the sound design and compositions of Barry G. Fundergurg, Barnes is able to evoke a splendid combination of humor and fantasy that enlivens the proceedings in a most delightful way.

“Whether you’re an avid fan of Shakespeare or a novice, you can’t go wrong with this wondrous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

     Chris Gibson

“Strong, clear direction, along with boundless comic energy, make this a dream to remember.  When you add in lots of magical highlights, sparkling in a forest of gods and fairies, you’ve got a perfect setting for a pair of very confused young lovers.

“And, by the way, I’d gladly pay for a back-stage pass during any performance—young lovers and forest fairies go racing up through the audience, only to reappear minutes (even just seconds) later, in entirely different costumes, at entirely different locations on the large main-stage theater.  In those few moments where I lost focus on the 500 year old verse, it was thrilling to think of actors racing back across the construction shop and through the back ways and out again, hurtling like cannonballs toward their next entrance.  It’s one of many good choices by director Paul Mason Barnes that adds a madcap dimension to Shakespeare’s play about all kinds of great romantic mix-ups.

“But you can keep that backstage pass, because what goes on out in front is plenty good enough.

“It’s a fully imagined show that wraps you up both gently and completely.”

     Richard Green

     Talkin’ Broadway

“Will someone please take the glitter gun from Susan Branch Towne?

“Actually, don’t.

“Her costumes in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s shimmering production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are a marvel, imbuing Shakespeare’s work with a signature aesthetic that’s at once elegant, whimsical and transportive—the sort of interpretive thumbprint that not only unifies the tale, but makes this otherwise superb production sublime.

“The visual language is unmistakable: Athenians have gained dominion over nature, training its riotous tendrils into civilized ornaments.  Towne’s imagery is mirrored by James Kroner’s stunning set, which in Athens comprises an orderly portico, behind which peek the wild woods.

“Civilization may have carried the day, but all is not orderly in the lovers’ hearts.  When Hermia and Lysander elope to the woods—followed in hot pursuit by Demetrius (who is in turn trailed by the rebuked Helena)—the Athenian portico opens, and the four lovers are quickly subsumed by the enchanted realm of Oberon, King of the Fairies.

“Nature is everywhere as the set’s mirrored trees glow with warm blues, greens and oranges, thanks to lighting designer Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz.  The fairies have fronds for hair, while shoots and tendrils snake up their arms and around their eyes.  Meanwhile, the impish Puck—who turns the Athenians’ world upside down, bewitching both men to swoon for the once-spurned Helena—cavorts in mossy pants.  His master, Oberon, is resplendent in dreadlocks, striding about his domain in a lustrous cape and green, stalk-like bodysuit.

“As the Athenians venture deeper into the woods, their delicate clothing is stripped away; the natural realm overtakes them like ivy over a building.  So much so, in fact, that before order is finally restored (and everyone marries appropriately), the lovers become nearly as rough as the play’s rustic troupe of actors, whom Towne dresses in bark-like pants and woody tops, placing them somewhere between the Athenians and the Fairies.

“Expertly directed by Paul Mason Barnes the excellent cast has several standouts.  Caroline Amos and Jeffrey Omura make for a witty and charming Hermia and Lysander.  Gracyn Mix brings both humor and a keen understanding of meter to the role of Helena, and Jim Poulos is terrifically mischievous as Puck.  Meanwhile, Alvin Keith and Rebecca Watson are regal in the roles of Oberon and his warring wife, Titania, while director Barnes has made several knowing and very funny decision as these woodland royals use mystical powers to control humans and fairies alike.

“Michael James Reed is hilarious as the weaver, Nick Bottom, and Adam Lendermon steals scene after scene as the hesitant tailor Robin Starveling.  (In fact, all of the laborers-come-thespians are terrific; their play within a play is simply tremendous.)

“Nevertheless, the production’s real stars remain Barnes, Towne, Kronzer, and Alcaraz.  By show’s end the Athenians may only vaguely recall their surreal midsummer night’s dream, but these four artists have created a visual realm that’s unforgettable.”

     Malcolm Gay

     The Riverfront Times