TourCo’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ makes Shakespeare accessible — on both sides of the curtain

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art by Caspar Dowdy

Originally “The Accolade” by Edmund Blair Leighton.

Caspar Dowdy, Editor-in-chief

Under clear skies and an unfortunate amount of road noise, the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival brought “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Edwardsville’s City Park on Aug. 19, with a cast and crew of STL natives led by director Tre’von Griffith.

TourCo, a traveling division of the festival, has spent the month of August performing the Shakespeare classic at parks and city centers across the St. Louis region.

The productions are, at first glance, scarce: with minimal setpieces and only six actors, each taking on two or three roles, it’s up to the audience to fill in any gaps.

But it’s in these limitations where TourCo shines. In its 20th year, the program has a distinct flavor that seeps into every play it adapts. There’s no attempt to hide, but rather to embrace, the technical obstacles of such a stripped-down show — wardrobe racks for quickly-changing costumes are incorporated into scene backgrounds, actors accent set changes with dancing and the branches of Fairy Land trees hang openly from wheeled trusses.

The group does a fantastic job performing Shakespeare’s story, but that’s not the show’s main purpose. Start to finish, the production strives to bring the bard’s work to all. Actors preface each show by introducing themselves, their characters, and the show’s plot; the “living study guide,” as the festival describes it, peels back the play’s flowery language to help audiences understand the play.

From a tour schedule that makes a point of serving underprivileged communities to a refreshed script and all-Black cast, the creative minds behind TourCo are willing to play with expectations of what a Shakespeare production “should” look like.

In Griffith’s hands, Shakespeare’s characters transcend their historical places to incorporate modern styles of speech that feel organic yet pointedly intentional. Casting decisions happily toy with gender roles that have come to be expected in theater. Costume design from Brandin Vaughn solidifies the message with a wardrobe that samples and celebrates Black culture, in all its artistry and expressiveness.

This creatively constructed world is brought to life by the show’s stellar actors, particularly Tiélere Cheatem, Rae Davis and Mel McCray, who masterfully blur the line between the historic and contemporary aspects of this adaptation — from sword fight to selfie and back again. Ricki Franklin, who brought high emotion to the tragedy “Othello” in last year’s TourCo production, was able to harness that spectacular energy into some of the most entertaining moments of this year’s comedy.

For generations of people who have learned to see Shakespeare’s work as an outdated English class chore, TourCo is offering a production that is not only unashamedly queer and unapologetically Black but also uncompromisingly human. And it’s waiting for the rest of us to catch on.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” ends its tour on Aug. 30 at Tower Grove Park, but the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival will continue to operate throughout the year. Notably, the culminating performance of its 2022 “Shakespeare in the Streets” initiative will take place from Sept. 22 to 24 in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of St. Louis.