‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
Through Dec. 30
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” brings together fairies, high-born Athenians and a sextet of skilled workmen with theatrical aspirations to create an improbable but magical world where even the most extreme situations end happily. In a visually exciting and extremely fun production currently playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, director Ethan McSweeny keeps the old material fresh.
McSweeny’s take is appropriately magic-filled and newly theatrical. He sets the story in the 1940s inside an empty theater where possibilities are boundless. After all, as the program points out, Shakespeare premiered this play on a bare stage. With two balconies, a couple chandeliers, fly ropes, trap doors, Lee Savage’s beautiful set — a once grand theater — is essentially a blank slate, allowing the action to move convincingly (with the help of Tyler Micoleau’s skilled lighting) from Athens to an enchanted forest.
Cast members are equally versatile. Tim Cambell and Sara Topham appealingly play the comely ruling couple Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, as well as Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies. Adam Green splendidly transforms from Theseus’ oddly buttoned up assistant to literature’s mischief maker extraordinaire, Puck. Dressed in a corset and breeches, Green’s agile fairy nimbly traverses the set delighting in the mayhem he initiates without ever being too cutesy or grating. It’s a terrific performance.
“Dream” is a comic tale of young love, both requited and not. Hermia (Amelia Pedlow) cannot bear Demetrius (Chris Myers), the preppy boy her father insists she must marry. Instead she loves Lysander (Robert Beitzel), a folksy poet who is never without his acoustic guitar. Hermia’s best friend Helena (the excellent Christiana Clark), whose taste runs toward shopping and chocolates, loves Demetrius; but alas Demetrius loves Hermia. In order escape her father’s commands, Hermia and Lysander retreat to the woods.
Along the way, before all ends well, Hermia and Helena, clad only in their underthings, fall into a long, drawn out cat fight (staged wet and goopy by McSweeny). The boys (also stripped to their skivvies) get involved too. Puck watches from the sidelines perched in a theater balcony nibbling on popcorn. Invisible to the young lovers, he descends into the fray, cleverly egging on the battle. It’s a wonderfully well-rehearsed scene that comes off without a hitch.
“Dream’s” amusing subplot focuses on the rude mechanicals, a group of workers including a tinker and a tailor who are keen to perform a work of their own making (Shakespeare’s enduring slapstick-filled skit within the play) for the Duke and Queen. Led by Ted van Griethuysen as Peter Quince, the group of avid amateur thespians includes Robin Starveling (Christopher Bloch), Tom Snout (a dour Herschel Sparber), the slowwitted Snug (Robert Dorfman) and the wonderful David Graham Jones as Francis Flute who plays the mechanical’s enthusiastic ingénue. The group’s most eager member, Nick Bottom, is hilariously played by Bruce Dow as a total drama queen, more than ready for his close up.
McSweeney’s imagery is unforgettable: The show strikingly opens with the Duke (covered in medals) and his first lady (looking more than a little Evita-ish with a chic hat and carefully arranged fur piece), addressing their drab public from the palace balcony. There is the moving tableau featuring an ardent Titania and her disinterested paramour Bottom (who has been magically made into an ass) being pulled across stage by a team of young fairies as they lie in the gutted piano that serves as their bed. Then at the play’s close, there’s Puck making his apologies to the audience lit by the glow of a lone ghost light.
Jennifer Moeller provides a collection of impeccably realized costumes from the 1940s suits and gowns worn by the Athenians to Oberon and Titania’s romantic frayed remnants of court finery. And the fairies’ costumes: vintage foundation garments topped with odds and ends culled from an abandoned backstage.
With its classic storyline, inventive staging and delightful cast that handles the language and comedy more than ably, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” makes perfect holiday fare both for Bard aficionados and the uninitiated alike.