Arts & Culture

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is Cuesta College’s first major show in new performance space

Camille Marcello plays Helena and Brandon Pascal is Demetrius in Cuesta College’s production of ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream.’
Camille Marcello plays Helena and Brandon Pascal is Demetrius in Cuesta College’s production of ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream.’

The cast members of Cuesta College’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” had more to learn than their lines.

They took lessons in juggling, stilt walking and stage combat. They constructed homemade stilts from logs and kitty litter pails, and practiced delivering lines in tightly laced corsets.

The actors even studied aerial dancing, which features performers suspended in midair on silken swaths of fabric.

“It’s important for everybody to understand the physical challenge and be part of that world,” director bree valle said. “It’s a very fast-paced, exciting, dynamic show.”

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the first major theatrical production to be staged in Cuesta’s Cultural and Performing Arts Center since it opened in November. The lavish play, which opens tonight, will feature larger-than-life sets and Cirque du Soleil-style performers in colorful costumes.

William Shakespeare’s magical comedy centers on three intertwining plots all tied to the upcoming nuptials of Duke Theseus (Aleksandr Hewitt) and his warrior queen Hippolyta (Jillian Cornell).

Nick Bottom (Steve Hunt) and his fellow tradesmen are preparing a play to present to the Duke on his wedding day. Meanwhile, young lovers Demetrius (Brandon Pascal), Lysander (Drew Cunningham), Helena (Camille Marcello) and Hermia (Jessica Renee Lyttle) are coping with a confusing love rectangle.

Both groups wander into the woods, landing in the middle of a squabble between Oberon (Nik Johnson) and Titania (Katie Sachen), king and queen of the fairies. Puck (Kristen Tuculet) intervenes and romantic havoc ensues.

Coming on the heels of “The Vagina Monologues” in March, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — set in Paris in the 1850s — is one of the college’s biggest theatrical undertakings to date. The production features about 15 crew members and 40 cast members, including local musicians Ian Forbes and Bob Sando.

“This is enormous considering that we’ve moved from the Interact Theater, which (was) a very small stage, to a massive stage,” said valle, who also designed the costumes. “We’re all trying to play catch up right now.”

According to valle, only three of the cast members had performed Shakespeare plays before, while the rest had limited knowledge of the Bard. So valle assigned two months of “bookwork.”

Students had to translate Shakespeare’s script into modern-day language, then back into Renaissance rhetoric. “There was a lot of hair pulling and headaches,” valle said with a chuckle.

Cast members also spent months learning special skills such as poi, a performance art that features balls on loops swung in elaborate circular patterns.

Crew members, meanwhile, had their own set of challenges.

“Our biggest challenge right now is the learning curve,” technical director Richard Jackson said. “We’re learning the systems as we’re using them.”

For instance, he said, the computer-controlled lighting and sound systems are far more sophisticated than in previous facilities. Plus, the 450-seat theater is considerably larger, boasting generous backstage areas, a 40-foot-wide proscenium opening and a 64-foot tower, or “fly space.”

In addition to lighting and sound cues, Jackson’s students were in charge of constructing scenery out of plywood, canvas and sculpted foam.

Set designer Peet Cocke sought inspiration from “Pan’s Labyrinth” and other fantasy films to create a dense, dark forest with natural elements that dwarf the actors.

Towering trees, their trunks 5 to 8 feet in diameter, stretch into the rafters. Faux boulders border a giant grove of bamboo flanked by a large reflecting pool.

Audiences don’t get a glimpse of the stage until a couple scenes into the first act. Cuesta’s production starts outside, in the grassy area in front of the theater entrance. Audience and cast members migrate to the theater as the action moves from the Duke’s court to the city streets and the wild woods beyond.

“We really wanted that wow factor,” Cocke said. “To do something on this scale has been a delight.”