A Midsummer Night's Dream by the Weird Sisters Women's Theater CollectiveThanks to everyone who attended! We had a fabulous time with this play.

Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Austin’s favorite all-woman troupe is back for their seventh annual production, keeping Shakespeare weird with a modern rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Austin Lovers Hermia and Lysandra long to don their wedding dresses and make a lifetime commitment to one another, but Hermia’s father Egeus implores Republican governor Theseus to throw the book at the same-sex couple to make room for his preferred son-in-law Demetrius, who is in turn lusted after by the lovely and lovelorn Helena.

The four skip town, seeking solace in the hill country woods, but even their high quality R.E.I. gear can’t keep them safe from the machinations of the meddling Puck and the fairy courts of Oberon and Titania. Join the Weird Sisters Women’s Theater Collective from August 18-21 and 25-27 in this whimsically relevant take on one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies.

When: Played August 18-21 and 25-27, 2011

Where: Center Stage Texas – 2826 Real Street – Austin, TX 78722

Facebook: event page

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Press:

Review by Michael Meigs at AustinLiveTheater.com

Moved to Texas with an all-female cast, the Bard’s comedy is a summer escape

‘Weird Sisters’ Reinvent the Bard, Women Only

Keeping it Weird: Sisters Take on Midsummer

Weird Sisters’ Fresh Take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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Review of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) published by Austin Live Theatre. August, 2009. Review written by Michael Meigs.

The Weird Sisters Theatre Collective’s Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet was a very Austin event. The Sisters performed Anne-Marie MacDonald’s broad feminist satire of Shakespeare and stuffy scholars in the backyard at the one and only Cathedral of Junk in South Austin, just a few blocks south of 290W/Ben White Boulevard. 

Closing night last Saturday was full, as a wide mix of folks filled up the very miscellaneous and inventive collection of chairs. Proprietor Vince Hannemann was rustling up seats right up till the opening, and he received a special ovation from the Sisters and the audience afterwards for his broad-spirited hosting.

The fun-loving feminist group was doing its fifth summer production. Their lengthy 2004 manifesto remains very much in effect. It begins, “WEIRD: We mean WEIRD in its original sense: wayward . We challenge the status quo, for we know that most theater drifts and defaults to old, hegemonic ways of interpreting, casting, directing, and producing.”

This is a loopy “what-if?” story about a woman academic, much neglected, misled and patronized by her thoughtlessly arrogant male supervisor.

Constance Ledbelly is struggling to write her thesis on Shakespeare. She has become intrigued by the fact that in neither Othello nor in Romeo and Juliet does a fool appear. If only a truth-teller like Touchstone or Feste or Lear’s fool had entered the stories,she reasons, these tales could have turned out not as trumped-up tragedies but as comedies. She assumes, then, originals by earlier authors, from which Shakespeare had erased the fool as an inconvenience . . . .

Leslie Guerrero as the prologue invited us to exercise our imaginations and to go with the ride, and quite a ride it was. After Connie’s puzzling over a mysterious scrap of undeciphered manuscript, a team of futuristic garbage workers erupts on the stage and appears to carry Connie off to the fields of her imaginings. The rest of Act I plays in Othello’s Cyprus just as Iago uses his handkerchief ploy to besmirch Desdemona’s honor. Act II moves to the streets of Verona just as Tybalt challenges Mercutio.

Connie ponders: why couldn’t someone just have told Othello what Iago was up to and thereby have saved everyone all the trouble? And since the quarreling in Verona occurs only because the lovers’ marriage is kept secret, why not blurt it out before the fighting starts? Once she has gotten oriented to her mindblowing transition into Shakespeare’s imaginings, Connie becomes the wise fool and does just those two things, with quite unexpected results.

Chris Humphrey plays wistful academic Constance Ledbelly with solemn sincerity. Initially downcast, she gives in to self-pity only for one brief moment, just before the garbage squad erupts onstage. The rest of the time she is mildly amazed, quizzical and engaged in the extravagant events. This is a droll turn and she’s very sympathetic throughout.

Vicki Yoder, the tallest of the group and the most robust in appearance, plays all of the swaggerers: clueless Professor Claude Night, Othello, and quarrelsome Tybalt. Lauren Schultz is her adversary as Iago and Romeo. They have a grand time with it all, and their acting styles are just two shades short of saloon melodrama.

The Desdemona story plays the smoothest. We find that Desdemona, played by Christa French, is more of a Diane or Amazon than a sheltered wifey. Desdemona welcomes Connie into warrior life in Cyprus as a trusted sage, quite overcoming our middle-aged academic. Iago keeps at his tricks but can’t discredit Connie.

Playwright MacDonald plays Connie’s bewildered ordinary speech against the surge of blank verse she invents for Shakespeare’s characters, and this technique raises the tone of these near-farcical doings to comedy pitch.

The second act does not rise to that level. Once Montagues and Capulets are reconciled, our Juliet (Noelle Fitzsimmons) quickly gets bored with the lack of romantic tension. There’s a truly dumb joke and pratfalls about a turtle separated from his shell, Romeo and Juliet quarrel, and Juliet falls instead for Connie the wise man. And then, after a revelation, for Connie the wise woman.

There’s some innocent bawdy, including the fencers’ parading of manly groin protectors. Eventually characters from both plays, deprived of their motives and cues for passion, gang up on poor Constance, who narrowly ‘scapes stifling.

She scolds them with a lesson that she has just learned for herself: life is not simple, it’s not about great passions, it’s messy and you just do the best you can.

Audience, players, and techs all had a fine time with these transformations. The players had conned their parts well and gloried in the saucy foolishness of it all. After all, what riper subjects are there for affectionate mockery than Shakespeare and academia?

For this 1988 work, her first, Canadian playwright Anne-Marie MacDonald received the Canadian Governor General’s Award, the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award and the Canadian Author’s Association Award.

Twenty years later, we were privileged to get the Austin spin on it.

For example, at one point Connie learns that she will be assigned to the university at Lubbock. “Lubbock!! But it’s so flat and absolutist there! I’m a relativist!”

And so are most of us, here in Austin. That’s why we enjoy our theatre and entertainment with a twist and a twinkle.

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Originally posted in November 2008 at Austin Live Theatre:

Turnabout is fair play might be the theme for The Merry Wives of Windsor. Penurious, lascivious Sir John Falstaff is out for “cony catching” throughout the play but he just can’t learn his lesson. Falstaff (Courtney Brown) aims to trick and seduce the merry wives of the title: Mistress Margaret Page (Leslie Guerrero, left) and Mistress Alice Ford (Christa French, right).”

Page & FordHighly amused by his presumptions, the good ladies entice the lecher to assignations three times, and each time they set him up. Hiding in a clothes basket, Falstaff is carried offstage to be dumped into the muck; cowering before discovery by a maddened husband, he disguises himself and flees as a witchy old crone; and finally, in an apparently enchanted glade, Sir Jack is pinched and pursued by townspeople disguised as fairies.

In fact, you could imagine Turnabout is fair play would be a pretty good heraldic device for the Weird Sisters Women’s Theatre Collective. This is the fourth full-length presentation by a group of women whose manifesto celebrates “the company of powerful, adventurous, wise women, with whom we foster strong, deep relationships.” They use the collective to express themselves, free of gender oppression.

As in their earlier presentations, the Sisters assemble an all-female cast. After all, Shakespeare’s company was all male, wasn’t it? This casting strategy works perfectly well in theatrical space, where the audience is happily complicit in the willing suspension of disbelief.

This is not one of Shakespeare’s better comedies, but theatrical legend excuses that in part by asserting that he wrote it in a rush at the request of Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted to see the hugely comic Falstaff in a romantic comedy.

Falstaff here has none of the canny skills of his pickled, cajoling, irate persona in the Henry IV plays. Out in Windsor, he is a clown and slave to all his appetites, fit to be gull’d and mocked. Sir Jack is a bigger, bolder, caricature version of the merry wives’ own husbands (and by implication, a stand-in for all that’s gross about the male gender).

No wonder the cast takes such enthusiastic delight in the bawdy allusions to cocks, erections, horns and cuckoos.

Director Susan Todd sets the play in the fictional town of Windsor, Texas in the mid-1950’s. She and the collective must have had fun assembling the slide show of ads and snapshots from that time, which amuses us 21st century folk with the gender stereotypes from back then. Before the action begins, we hear Elvis, Patsy Cline, and contemporary recordings of ads and music from a radio station in Midland.

The costumes for female characters are a colorful, corny gala of middle class fashion of the time (love those Capri pants, Anne Page!).

Shakespeare’s language in broad Texas accents? It works! That makes it all the funnier. As the aged Justice Shallow, Chris Humphrey is a cantankerous Texas justice of the peace to the life. Loquacious and brassy in the person of Mistress Quickly, Hollie Baker is part Dolly Parton, part Goldie Hawn.

Courtney Brown is a hoot as Jack Falstaff, visiting star of a broken down rock band. Wrapped in Elvis pompadour and sideburns, she delivers her role with shameless assurance.

This troupe has good fun addressing the audience. Silly quarrels between silly prospective suitors to young Anne Page entertain us. The rivalries of the inept make them foils to Falstaff’s less scrupulous intentions of seduction.

Shakespeare was showcasing Falstaff, in a sort of Fat Jack III. But in this presentation, with the original text essentially intact, director Todd succeeds in focusing instead on the journey of Frank Ford, husband to one of the merry wives.

Ford’s counterpart Page (Penny Smith) is not at all discomfited when they learn of the curious, identical love letters Falstaff has sent to the ladies. But Ford (Vicki Yoder) torments himself with jealousy and uncertainty over the virtue of his wife.

So of course, he makes things worse. He insinuates himself into Falstaff’s company under the guise of “Master Brook” (Brook – Ford – get it?) and suborns the knight with a packet of cash to seduce Mistress Ford so as to make her available for conquest. Sir Jack is happy to take money for the job he’s already got underway.

Falstaff’s succeeding accounts and assurances drive Ford further around the bend, so that he grows more disturbed and more comic with each succeeding incident.But at the finale, with doubt resolved and virtue rewarded, Ford reveals that his alter ego “Brook” does, after all, have the prospect of sleeping with Mistress Ford.

Vicki Yoder is so impressive in the role of Ford/Brook that during the intermission I was wondering whether she might have been better cast as Falstaff, the lord of misrule. She has the presence, expression and physical stature to have handled that interpretation.

But then, this is the Weird Sisters Collective. It is appropriate that Sir Jack remain smooth and mostly unrepentant, because would-be seducers are always out there. The better choice was to invest an actor/actress of Yoder’s depth in a character who comes to redemption.

There is a lovely non-Shakespeare moment in the second half when Miss Anne Page (Johnson) is dancing in a darkened hall with her true beloved, Master Fenton (Martina Ohlhauser). She snuggles close, surprising the awkward Fenton, and kisses him. Then as they rotate in dreamland, that self-assured daughter reaches down and with one hand takes possession of his rump. Fade out. We know that there will be no one else in her future, once the plots get untangled.

Most of the other characters are silly quarrelers with impossibly funny accents or henchmen (henchpersons). But in passing, a couple of special tips of the hat: to Aména Moïnfar as the unsurprised servant to the French physician and to Brooks Louton as servant Peter Simple, stammeringly intimidated.

No curtain call for this cast! They exited from the dénouement straight out to the Vortex café, where they received friends and supporters streaming out from the theatre.

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