CHAUTAUQUA - It's hard to believe, but tonight the final production by the Chautauqua Theater Company for 2008 will begin its run in the Bratton Family Theater.
The production will probably be the theater-going public's favorite play by Shakespeare: ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' The plot is full of tricks, jokes and teasing, while nobody is really in serious danger, and deals with magical creatures.
Despite all of this, it is Shakespeare, and the Bard has some serious thinking tucked away among the silliness to make going to a production into a quest for truth.
David Allen Cullen
Frankie J. Alvarez
In Shakespeare's time, it was commonly understood that the period of time around Midsummer's Night was magical, when trolls, goblins and fairies were most likely to be encountered, especially in a person's dreams.
Anyone who could remember a dream which he or she had on Midsummer's Night probably told it again and again, while friends and foe try to guess what future the dream magically predicted.
The play ''Midsummer Night's Dream'' tells of activity among three levels of people: common workmen, the rich nobility, and a supernatural, magical group. The playwright sticks to goblins and fairies, who were seen as pretty innocuous, and avoids other possible supernatural creatures.
The plot begins and ends with a wedding. Theseus is the ruler of Athens. He has recently led his armies successfully against the all-female Amazon armies. In victory, he demands that the Queen of the Amazons must marry him as her conqueror.
When royalty married in the ancient world, it was common that many prisoners were given liberty, tax holidays were granted, and people who provided some service to make the wedding special were given huge financial rewards.
One layer of the play's plot, then, is a group of skilled craftsmen -commoners - who have decided to write and perform a play, which they hope will please Theseus and win them a big cash prize. They decided to meet in the woods, outside the city where nobody can steal their ideas while they rehearse.
Meanwhile, an elderly Athenian has a beautiful young daughter, and he has decided to marry her to a young man named Demetrius. Hermia doesn't love Demetrius, but she is madly in love with his friend, Lysander.
The law in Athens states that a daughter who refuses to marry her father's choice must enter a religious order, similar to becoming a nun, or be executed. Lysander has relatives who live in a neighboring country and he proposes that he and Hermia flee through the woods to his relatives and marry, where no law gets in their way.
Demetrius sets out into those same woods, determined to drag Hermia back and claim her hand in marriage. Meanwhile, Hermia has a friend named Helena who loves Demetrius as much as Hermia loves Lysander, and she sets off into the woods in the hope that Demetrius will choose her when he sees how much she loves him.
Finally, out in that same forest, the king and queen of the fairies - Oberon and Titania - have had a quarrel. He is determined to teach his wife a lesson about a wife's duties.
Nick Bottom, the liveliest character among the craftsmen, has fallen afoul of Oberon's chief henchman, a magical creature named Puck. Puck has turned Bottom's head into the head of a donkey.
Oberon orders Puck to punish Titania by anointing her eyes with a magic potion which makes her fall utterly in love with the first creature she encounters. Puck arranges that the donkey-headed Bottom becomes the object of his queen's ardor.
Meanwhile, Oberon feels sorry for the four young noble youth. He orders Puck to use the same magic to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena, so all four may have the lover of their choice. Alas, Puck gets the wrong man and makes Lysander fall in love with Helena. Eventually, he half-corrects the mistake, and causes Demetrius to also fall for Helena, leaving Hermia alone in the world.
Eventually, all the lovers and spouses end up with the right person for them, and the workers perform a hilarious play as Theseus and his warrior bride celebrate their wedding.
It's a comedy, but there is much here to be learned about how people may lose the most important things in their lives by pursuing things which really don't matter.
Meet the actors
I met with five of the actors - first with three who will portray the immortals: Oberon, Titania and Puck. Then I met with two who will portray the workmen: Bottom and Peter Quince, the person chosen to write and direct this play which they hope will win them an annuity.
Here's the background information, then we'll see what they had to say:
n Brooke Parks will portray Titania. She is a native of Orange, Calif., and recently completed her studies at the Yale School of Drama. She has played many roles before coming to Chautauqua, including Arkadina in ''The Seagull,'' Mrs. Gibbs in ''Our Town'' and Kate the Cursed in ''The Taming of the Shrew.''
n Clifton Duncan will enact Oberon. He is a native of Newport News, Va., and has completed two years of study at New York University's graduate school of acting. He will return for the third year in the fall. He has appeared in ''The Tempest,'' ''Pericles, Prince of Tyre,'' ''Much Ado About Nothing'' and ''Cymbeline,'' among many others.
n Frankie J. Alvarez will represent the trickster Puck. Those who attended this season's wonderful production of ''Death of a Salesman'' saw him as Bernard, the nerd next door. He has a BFA degree from Florida State University and is about to enter his third year at the Juilliard School in Manhattan. His roles have included Romeo in ''Romeo and Juliet,'' Don Carlos in '' A Flea in Her Ear'' and Buzz in ''Love, Valour Compassion.''
n Shauna Miles will play a very female version of Peter Quince, the skilled carpenter assigned to write and direct the workers' play. Chautauqua Theater regulars this season have already seen her as the murderous secretary in ''Reckless.'' She received her BFA from Boston University, then performed professionally for a number of years before returning to study at the National Theatre Conservatory in Washington, D.C., where she will soon begin her second year. You may have seen her on ''As the World Turns'' or in ''The Education of Max Bickford.''
n Patrick David Cullen will spend a good part of this play with a donkey's head covering his own as Nick Bottom, the weaver. If you saw ''Death of a Salesman,'' you saw Patrick as Stanley, the harried waiter. He will soon begin his second year at the University of Washington, where he has played Hastings in ''She Stoops to Conquer,'' Mr. Smith in ''The Bald Soprano'' and Acaste in ''The Misanthrope'' by Moliere.
And, they said ...
By now, you've noted that these are not just the kids next door. They're certainly adults, and they've won places at some of our nation's most respected institutions of learning. I suspect we will hear more from these young people in films, stage plays and television.
The three ''supernaturals'' have learned to cover the awkwardness of their on-stage relationship with an ongoing teasing and laughing when they're out of character. They find themselves playing husband, wife and someone so close to them he could be thought of as a son, yet six weeks ago they had never met one another.
I started by asking them their impressions of Chautauqua after five weeks' work in the Conservatory Theatre Company. ''I had no idea what to expect,'' Parks said. ''I read the promotional materials that (Artistic Directors) Viv and Ethan had sent to my school, and it all looked wonderful. I certainly knew both of them by reputation. One of my roommates had been here in a previous year, but we had never talked about it in any detail.''
There are other well-respected summer programs. What brought the recent Yale grad to our area? She answered, ''Viv offered me the chance to play Titania, and I knew it was the right place for me.''
Alvarez is impressed by the people he has gotten to know. ''My school has a wonderful program, and I've gotten to know and work with a number of really top actors,'' he said. ''But here, not only are there top actors, there are opera singers and painters and sculptors and dancers. I wish I had more time to attend their performances and shows, but just sitting with them in the cafeteria and learning something about their work process has taught me a great deal.''
Duncan agreed. ''We spend years working really, really hard to learn how to appear as though we're not working at all. The people who are working in the other arts are doing the same thing. I've loved getting to see some of the techniques they have for coping with the difference between what they do and what they have to seem to be doing.''
All three agree that they've enjoyed and learned from being directed by Alec Wild. He is the founder of the Folio Theater in Chicago.
''I don't care what anybody says, performing Shakespeare is hard,'' Alvarez says. ''Some directors get the idea that they understand the play and nobody else does, and their actors should just listen to what they're told and figure out how to do it.
''Alec isn't afraid to admit that he isn't sure what a line from the play means. If we don't agree with something he suggests, he's willing to try it our way, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but there is never an atmosphere of being told to just be quiet and do what we're told,'' he added.
Duncan says that one of the most attractive parts of the Chautauqua experience, beyond the Conservatory program, has been the beauty of the lake, the architectural beauty of the buildings, and the experience of being out of the noise and dirt of big cities.
All three talk of the positive support they get from Chautauqua audiences. The Friends of the Theater at Chautauqua have assigned a family to each of them, so they each have a house where they're welcome to a home-cooked dinner or a place to do some laundry, or perhaps a quiet room or porch where they can study their lines.
Parks states that one of the nicest parts of the experience is how carefully the program's artistic directors work to let them know that everyone is in the same boat. ''Many programs think it's constructive to encourage their students to compete against each other, and to feel threatened by everyone else's talent. That just doesn't happen here,'' she said, and her ''husband and son'' agree with her.
The actors playing the ''rude mechanicals,'' or the skilled craftsmen, have similar views of the Chautauqua program. Shauna Miles reveals that one of her reasons for wanting to come to Chautauqua was to ''keep my game up.''
The level of work in her regular program is demanding. If she spent the summer months appearing in community theater or working at a temporary job, she said, she would lose some of the gains she had made through her study and work at the National Theater.
''I've heard that the ideal time between beginning to rehearse and the opening of a play is six weeks, but it's rare that anyone gets that much time,'' Cullen said. ''One of the biggest things I've learned at Chautauqua is how to get into a role quickly. I'm sort of lucky that I had a role in the first play, then I had a few days of down time - not that there weren't classes and seminars and so on, but I didn't have a role to develop. Now, I'm pumping hard to get all the aspects of Bottom.''
Both actors agree that one of the nicest things about their roles is that the director treats their characters as though they are valuable, talented people.
''Alec said he doesn't want anyone getting cheap laughs by suggesting that a character is stupid and people ought to laugh at him,'' Cullen said. ''He said these are people who are the best carpenter or plumber or furniture maker in town, and those are important and respectable skills. This play contest isn't some drunken project they're taking on for fun. It may be the only chance they'll get in their lives to have real security. The prize is a lot of money.''
Miles said that she has studied in London at Lambeth, and has learned a great deal about putting together a Shakespearean play. ''These plays may be more than 400 years old, but they hold up,'' she said. ''They're about real people doing the best they can in some tough situations, and that should make sense to just about anybody. Obviously, some people don't make the right choices, and other people do make the choices, but the forces acting on them are just too strong for them to cope with.
''What can you do, if you find yourself in a situation like these?'' she continued. ''I hope the audience can see what our characters do, and why, and it will resonate for them in their own lives, whether to make a certain choice or not to make it.''
I really enjoyed talking with these young people and I learned a great deal in the process. You can communicate with them on the stage of the Bratton Family Theater beginning tonight and continuing through next Saturday. Some performances are at 8 p.m. and others during the afternoon, so be sure you know when the curtain will rise on the performance you want to attend. To order tickets, go to www.CTCompany.org or call 357-6250. A play ticket also serves as a gate ticket to get you through the gates of Chautauqua.