“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
If Puck, the shape-shifting sprite that causes so much of the mayhem in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” needed any further convincing on this point, the theatrical offerings at this year’s Spoleto Festival should set him straight. Throughout these five stage shows, unwise decisions on the part of these mortals can have consequences that are disastrous and even, well, mortal.
The fickle foursome of young lovers at the center of “Midsummer,” which is receiving the longest run of the festival (19 performances beginning today at the Dock Street Theatre), get off relatively easy after a whirlwind of broken hearts. But not much is easy or straightforward in this inventive staging by Handspring Puppet Company (best-known for creating the dazzling puppets in the Broadway and West End hit play “War Horse”) and Bristol Old Vic. Handspring’s core philosophy is that all objects have the potential for life within them, a belief that comes to vibrant life through the interactions between the bewitching fairies and their hapless human counterparts.
As tends to be the case with Shakespeare’s comedies, all things are set to rights by the end, not counting the damage inflicted on “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe,” a play-within-the-play presented by a crew of buffoonish rustics. For two of the festival’s solo shows, however, things can be a lot more serious.
Take Tristan Sturrock, who was paralyzed from the neck down just four months before his son was born. In “Mayday Mayday” (May 23-27 at the Emmett Robinson Theater), Sturrock recounts the harrowing tale of a fateful day in 2004 when he fell backward off a brick wall, broke his neck and was unable to feel or move his body from the neck down. But just as Handspring brings even the inanimate objects of “Midsummer” to life, Sturrock — a veteran of the physically adventurous Kneehigh Theater (he was last seen at Spoleto in 2006 with “Tristan and Yseult”) — turns this tale of complete immobility into a literally and figuratively moving piece of theater.
For the time being, William Wonder has been luckier than Sturrock in terms of his physical safety. But that could change any night if you believe what he is depicting in “Bullet Catch” (June 5-9 at the Emmett Robinson Theatre). Wonder, the fictional creation of Rob Drummond, is a magician whose goal is to re-create the titular trick, an infamous bit of magic that involves an audience member firing a live gun at the magician. When done right, the bullet is stopped midflight between the magician’s teeth. When done wrong ...
Harry Houdini reportedly refused to do the trick, and at least 12 fatalities have resulted from it: magicians but also assistants and even spectators. Spoleto audiences will have six opportunities to make sure the name William Wonder isn’t added to that list.
The worst decisions are the ones that most easily could have been avoided. And perhaps Western theater’s most famous advice ignorer will be on display in the form of Oedipus, whose mommy and daddy issues will be on full display in a modern-dress adaptation of Sophocles’ “Oedipus” (June 4-8 at Memminger Auditorium). Steven Berkoff, whose piercing eyes and formidable brow have made him a go-to bad guy in the movies for decades (“Octopussy,” “Rambo”), is less well-known in the U.S. as a provocative and rather divisive playwright. Here, in addition to adapting and directing the production, he also appears in it as Creon, who manages to be both the title character’s uncle and brother-in-law.
Finally, Puck might want to expand his definition of foolishness when he lays eyes (and, more to the point, ears) on the Zygonians, a band of terrifying sludge monsters intent on wiping out those mortals — every last one of them. The Zygonians are just some of the beasties who play prominent roles in the two-part “The Intergalactic Nemesis” (June 5-9 at the Sottile Theater), an ambitious live-action adaptation of a science-fiction graphic novel, complete with elaborate on-stage sound effects and more than 1,250 cartoon panels. Suddenly, live bullets and (sort of) alive inanimate objects don’t seem so strange after all.