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Zoot launches new summer series at DAI

Performances will be held in renovated Hale Cloister.

This week Zoot Theatre Company, Dayton’s imaginative mask/puppet troupe, launches its Summer Series dubbed “A Box, Bottle & Play” with William Shakespeare’s fanciful romantic comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” inside the renovated Hale Cloister of the Dayton Art Institute.

The DAI became Zoot’s official home earlier this season, which consisted of highly commendable mainstage productions of “And A Child Shall Lead,” “A Christmas Carol” and “The Hobbit” held inside the NCR Renaissance Auditorium. When the idea to produce a separate series came into fruition with a dinner theater component, organizers felt it would be beneficial to aim for summer which is typically considered a downtime for local theater options. Box lunch/dinners will be provided by Leo Bistro, the DAI café.

“My goal is to figure out what the audience wants or needs,” said Zoot co-founder/executive producer Michael Sticka. “I’ve always liked outdoor theater and the ability to do summer stock. And the Hale Cloister is a beautiful, underused space. We are already generating great response from the community because people are realizing how unique this is.”

“The Dayton Art Institute is thrilled that Zoot Theatre Company is taking its programming to the next level with a Summer Series in the newly renovated Hale Cloister,” added DAI executive director Michael Roediger. “We hope that guests coming to see Zoot will explore everything the museum has to offer. We are proud of our partnership with Zoot and honored to have them as a resident company of the DAI.”

Featuring puppets designed by Zoot co-founder/artistic director D. Tristan Cupp, “Midsummer,” the first in the three-show series that includes Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” (July 10-21) and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (July 31-Aug. 11), will be adapted and staged by Brian McKnight, whose directorial credits include Sinclair Community College’s “Dog Sees God” and “Footfalls” as well as Wright State University’s “All My Sons” and “Our Town.” He views the play’s accessibility as a huge plus as Zoot embarks on this new endeavor.

“Most people have heard of or seen ‘Midsummer,’” said McKnight, who provided an adaptation of “Hansel and Gretel” for Zoot in 2009. “It’s a play that just seems to be in our DNA and contains familiar jokes. It’s also an outdoorsy play designed to be performed the way we’re doing it. ‘Midsummer’ happens at night, but in Shakespeare’s era productions started at 2 p.m. So, achieving a sense of night when it’s actually a hot summer day is one of the things I’m interested in as a director.”

A longtime Shakespeare devotee, McKnight is particularly using the First Folio, the first publication of Shakespeare’s plays released in 1623, to allow his cast to have a greater connection to the material as originally intended.

“I’m a big proponent of the Folio,” he said. “We are taking some of the cobwebs off of ‘Midsummer’ to return it to a conversation between playwright and actor in order to communicate to the audience. By using the Folio it’s the closest we can get to Shakespeare himself. I also feel his plays were more alive than I think we are sometimes led to believe. We see the age, the cobwebs, but I’m excited at the possibility of making his dialogue come alive again, especially in the Cloister without any major technical design. It will look as if we’re performing the play in 1589, which I think adds to the timelessness of it. We are not staging ‘Midsummer’ in any set time or any set place – it just is.”

The “Midsummer” puppeteers/actors, who will portray multiple roles and are a conglomeration of mostly Wright State University acting majors and Zoot company members, include Kelsey Andrae, Cameron Blankenship, Darren Brown, Matt Harding, Mathys Herbert, Anita Hill, Juliet Howard-Welch and Andrew Quiett.

McKnight, who is already rehearsing “Dr. Faustus,” acknowledges some purists may have qualms with the structure of his “Midsummer” adaptation, which moves some elements around and shrinks the play to a running time of roughly 80 minutes without intermission. Even so, he hopes audiences are open to receiving the play with a refreshing perspective.

“All of us have been told Shakespeare’s plays are ‘important,’ but I hope the audience leaves with a different, less removed idea of ‘Midsummer.’ Some people become very afraid or nervous when it comes to Shakespeare, but his plays are so human. I hope audiences are ready for a human experience.”

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