And while I’m generally unqualified to give opinions on matters of taste and culture, I have to tell you about last night. You see, I was fortunate enough to attend A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perfected. That’s right–423 years after the original production, Janet Schlapkohl’s adaptation, performed by Combined Efforts Theatre has nailed it.
I admit I’ve never actually had the pleasure of seeing MND performed up until last night, but it is difficult to imagine a more delightful adaptation, a more picturesque venue, a more splendid series of scenes or more heartfelt performances.
About the theater
On satellite, Eastern Iowa looks like a child’s leaf-rubbing: ghost-green fields patchworked by Christmas-velvet groves, with veiny rivers worked all through. To get to The Country Camp, drive down a ribbon of hardpacked gravel, up a dirt driveway and then turn north at the horse pasture to park. Next, get out of your car and marvel at the number of vehicles there already. As you make your way past the horse barn to stage one, look around and realize–Grant Wood wasn’t making it up–Iowa really DOES look like that–except it’s golder and greener and fresher and oh-so-astonishingly real. It’s late July, and the air smells like tall corn and cut alfalfa.
Iowa weather is fickle, but we were fortunate last night–it was clear and the temperature landed somewhere between shirtsleeves and tank tops, with the humidity hovering in that sweet spot that makes Iowans quit complaining about the weather long enough to complain about the caucuses.
As we waited, we were serenaded by a chorus of cricketsong and hen gossip, smelling cotton candy and an abundance of that lemon-meringuey Bug Soother that Midwesterners pass around at outdoor gatherings as if it were a party favor. And then, showtime.
All the world’s a stage
Expect no curtain call at The Country Camp. Instead, Ms. Schlapkohl has the audience move from set to set, taking advantage of meadow, farm and woods as a backdrop, and using everything from chairs to logs to railroad ties for audience seating. Act I was accompanied by barn swallow acrobatics and Act II was held in a shady cathedral of spruce and red cedar–the sort of wooded copse that lies on the edge of every Midwestern farmyard. Inside, it smelled of juniper and pine needles. Beneath our feet, a loamy carpet peppered with cedar seeds, and overhead, a canopy of birdsong. The far side of the woods featured a circus train of walkways and ladders (no doubt enjoyed by Country Campers) which provided a marvelous backdrop for Fairyland. In the meadow beyond, a pair of monarchs improvised an amorous ballet, while the sinking sun gilded a perfect swell of prairie.
Spectators may find the need to lean around the weathered trunk of a cedar tree in order to catch all the actors, but this in no way affects the enjoyment of the show. From that enchanted Fairyland in scene two, Act III is enjoyed from a clearing suitable for frolicking in flower wreaths, where the audience may grab a chair or perch upon a log instead.
But about the show
But about the show–and that is what this is supposed to be about–Combined Efforts Theatre is a disability-inclusive theatre troupe based in Iowa city, Iowa. It was founded in 2002 by Janet Schlapkohl. I couldn’t begin to list all the delightful performances last night–being of only limited acquaintance with the play–but Josh Sazon was mesmerizing as Oberon. The role of Nick Bottom was played with comic abandon by Derek Johnson and Lark Cristensen-Szlanski played a sweet and wry Margaret of the Mead House. My personal favorite was Pam Michaels Meyers with her delicious dose of snark as Hippolyta. In addition, the show featured a host of entertaining Athenians, winsome Fairies and hilarious Mechanicals. Ms. Schlapkohl’s version is a slimmed down and kid-friendly version, with a tang of present-day, the performance of which was complimented by the occasional graceful interception of the missed line.
I realize now that this was not just a review of MND, but of rural Iowa and Grant Wood and a reminder of how grand and great the world can be. And that even in the midst of dark tragedies and frantic headlines there are oases of peace and calm and beauty. So my advice to you is get thee to Iowa City if you are anywhere close. There are only two more chances to enjoy this wonderful show. I have to think the Bard would approve.
My heart still sails at the thought of it.