Theater Review: Actors From the London Stage at Wellesley

Titania and Bottom share a meaningful moment in the AFTLS production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: Peter Ringenberg

Once again we are indebted to Wellesley College for bringing to town Actors From the London Stage (AFTLS). This is the fifth visit the 35-year-old institution has made here. Each fall five seasoned Shakespeareans from England take up residence at U.S. colleges for a week, conducting workshops and seminars with students.

Reviewed by Caldwell Titcomb.

For the public the players perform a work of Shakespeare for three free performances. In previous years Wellesley audiences have been treated to four serious plays: Macbeth, Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, and King Lear. This time the choice was a romantic comedy, Midsummer Night’s Dream, the most often staged work in the canon.

After two years of renovations, the venue has returned to the Paul Barstow Stage in the 1300-seat Walsh Alumnae Hall. I attended the second performance (September 24), which drew an enormous and enthusiastic audience.

You might think that you can’t do a Shakespeare play with a cast of only five, but year after year the AFTLS quintet pulls it off impressively. The group consists of three men and two women, this year Nicola Alexis, Devon Black, Matthew Douglas, Paul O’Mahony, and Julian Rivett. Each of them undertakes from four to six roles.

Shakespeare drew on Ovid, Apuleius, Chaucer, and other sources to produce a wondrous fusion of matched and mismatched lovers, fairies in the forest, and a hilarious Pyramus-and-Thisbe play-within-a-play, all culminating properly with three marriages.

This year's Actors from the London Stage troupe are, from left to right, Matthew Douglas, Devon Black, Julian Rivett, Nicola Alexis, and Paul O’Mahony

In all AFTLS productions, the emphasis is on the text. There are no sets and no director. The staging is worked out by the cast in rehearsal. The switch from one character to another is affected by a minimal number of props—chiefly by headgear, along with a couple of scarves, three umbrellas, a tootling recorder, a pair of glasses, and bright red valentine’s hearts that are slapped on chests at will.

This production was highly athletic—especially so for Rivett’s sprite Puck, who can encircle the earth in 40 minutes. O’Mahony gets to say one of the loveliest speeches in Shakespeare, Oberon’s “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.” And Douglas’s Bottom has a fine time offering to enact all the roles in the playlet and delivering his “dream” speech near the end.

The AFTLS’s remaining stops are the University of Texas at Austin (September  27–October 3), Western Illinois University (Oct. 4-10), University of Texas at San Antonio (October 11–17), Indiana University (October 18–24), Butler University (October 25–31), and back home in London for two performances (November 15–16). Next fall’s play will be The Tempest, and one hopes that Wellesley will again extend a beckoning finger.

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