A Midsummer Night’s Dream has long been the favorite Shakespeare play of Violet O’Valle, founder and artistic director of Pantagleize Theatre. She’d never considered directing a production of it, however, until she heard an interesting story last year from one of Pantagleize’s regular performers.
Richard Don Simms, a 76-year-old storyteller who’s known around Fort Worth as The Cowboy Comedian for his banjo playing and stand-up routine, mentioned that he’d performed in a 1959 adaptation of the show entitled A Cowboy Midsummer Night’s Dream. That version was first performed at Howard Payne University in Brownwood; the cast went on to tour England and Scotland with the production, which was directed by a Howard Payne drama instructor and British native named Alex Reeves.
Reeves’ adaptation,” O’Valle said, “was set in the 1880s in the Hill Country near Austin. He didn’t do any extensive rewrites of Shakespeare’s script. He just added some incidental music, dressed up the actors in Western costumes, and had them speak the lines in their Texas drawls. They performed in London, Cambridge, and Bristol in England and in Dundee, Scotland. Richard has books of memorabilia from the tour. They were reviewed and written about everywhere they went.”
O’Valle decided she wanted to restage A Cowboy Midsummer Night’s Dream with as many of the 30 original cast members as could participate. Simms managed to locate five surviving participants spread around Texas and the country. Though they all declined to join the revival, O’ Valle was undaunted. She asked Simms to recreate his role as Snug the Joiner and cast the rest of the play with local performers, auditioning no one under the age of 55. After posting fliers and holding auditions at various assisted-living facilities around Fort Worth, including the large retirement community at Trinity Terrace, she assembled a cast of 18 actors for Pantagleize’s revival of the 1959 production, which has been renamed A Midsummer Night in Texas. O’Valle kept the 1880s Texas frontier setting and the cowboy costumes and added Western traditional music, including “Home on the Range” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Other than that, the Pantagleize version is mostly Shakespeare’s original text with a few trims.
The cast ranges in age from fiftysomething to eightysomething. Few of them have previous experience as theater performers, though all were familiar with Shakespeare’s comedy. O’Valle wasn’t intimidated at the thought of guiding a large group of nonprofessional actors of a certain age to memorize and perform the Bard’s complex wordplay. She insists the process has been a pleasant surprise.
“They’ve shown up on time and ready to rehearse with their lines memorized,” she said. “They’re enthusiastic and extremely energetic. A few of them have embellished their lines a little bit. One of our actors has a line where he’s addressing a duke, and I thought, ‘I’ve never heard that before.’ It turns out he was including a reference to the Texas governor’s mansion being burned down. I didn’t ask why. We kept it in.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a sprawling comic fantasy that places fairly high physical demands on the actors who perform in it. At the beginning of rehearsals, O’Valle told the cast to keep in mind that the play was a gentle comedy –– she hoped the Pantagleize version would bring out the airy, dreamlike qualities that the Elizabethan playwright intended. The cast proceeded to ignore her, she said, taking the play in a direction that stressed its physical comedy. While none of the performers was overly concerned with preserving his or her dignity, their experience in life, if not on the stage, has come to the fore in this show.
“I’m surprised at how well the age factor is working,” O’Valle said. “Sometimes [in Shakespearean productions] you see young actors who have an earnest quality that makes up for the fact they don’t have much depth. These actors have depth. They’re not ponderous or artificial or self-important.”
A Midsummer Night in Texas
Aug 16-26 at Pantagleize Theatre, 1400 Henderson St, FW. $15-20.