No playwright in history is more ubiquitous than William Shakespeare. From scholars of the arts to lackadaisical students dreading his name, just about everyone in the Western world is familiar with the Bard and his work. As a result, no author’s work is tweaked more than his. Countless settings, dates, genders, and just about all other aesthetic alterations that can be made to a Shakespeare play have been made. From my experience, when they work they really work, and when they don’t my goodness they don’t. I’m not about to say that Shakespeare must always be done as originally intended (we’d only have all-male productions if that were the case), but I will say that if there is a drastic alteration in setting or tone that it should be to improve a production rather than wallow in the mere creativity of the director.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a Shakespearean comedy that follows a quartet of young lovers and a troupe of sub-par actors as they each find their way into the woods near Athens one evening. As the night progresses all of them are unknowingly toyed with by Oberon, the unseen king of the fairies, and his tricky sprite servant, Puck, for their own gains, sympathies, and amusements. Naturally, as is expected of Shakespearean comedies, miscommunication and general foolery lead to all sorts of farcical scenarios that need untangling.
To continue the tradition of placing Shakespearean plays in anachronistic settings, director Lindsay McKenna has opted to set her production of Midsummer “Somewhere near the 1920s” as opposed to mythological Ancient Greece. It was certainly a delightful change of pace to see the actors who portray Peter Quince’s troupe fill The City Theatre’s preshow lounge with circus/sideshow acts, quickly setting the tone before the production had begun. The initial, visual results are a cast costumed in an era-appropriate fashion, from suits and ties to vaudevillian/circus garb. Andy Berkovsky’s set design aids in the vaudeville-showman theme that threads itself throughout the production by consisting predominantly of a large curtain on a raised platform framed by the twisting branches of the forest, leaving a large space downstage for the action to occur. It’s immediately effective both in its physical representation of both the enchanted forest and this circa-1920s Athens we find ourselves in, as well as thematically in regards to McKenna’s emphasis on the carnival/performative nature of Midsummer’s intersecting plot lines. In general, the choice to set Midsummer circa-1920s is one of the few instances in which I’ve seen the anachronistic setting of a Shakespearean play actually add to the production. Many Shakespeare adaptations tend to be set in another time or place for no other reason than being unique (or so it often feels as an audience member). Meanwhile, Midsummer’s vaudeville setting emphasizes the frivolity of (almost) every character, their performative nature in front of each other, the Quince troupe’s slapdash production, and even Oberon and Puck’s observational role in many scenes as they silently watch events play out unseen (even though they greatly progress the plot on their own multiple times). It was a clever and unexpected choice that I greatly enjoyed.
Given the size of the cast the acting is bound to vary, but I’ll say from the start that overall the actors were rather good. Let’s take them in groups. First, Quince’s troupe (aka the mechanicals). The sextet lead the audience into the production with their aforementioned sideshows that help set the tone for the evening. The characters further solidify the jovial mood from their attire that is heavily reminiscent of carnival performers, most notably Francis Flute (Amber Wilson) depicted as a bearded lady and Nick Bottom (Levi Gore) dressed in a strongman’s, leopard-print leotard. During the show itself, the crew’s clownish behavior keeps with the traditional depiction of the mechanicals as inept yet serious about their craft. Naturally, Gore as Bottom is an enjoyably over-the-top ham as he continually attempts to steal the spotlight from his fellow actors. It’s clear from his enthusiasm that Gore is enjoying himself to no end; it’s the kind of joy and ego that makes for a fun Bottom. And how can he not have fun onstage with that leotard? The rest of the crew receives less stage time than Gore, but as a unit make for an entertaining, if not occasionally grating group. Each of them has clearly made a unique persona with McKenna that fits with the general ragtag vaudeville vibe. I had occasional issues with understanding some their lines, particularly with the squeaky-voiced Snug (Susannah Cromwell), when the gimmicks of their characters took over too much, but they were still a lovable collection of rapscallions to have around.
Next let’s look at the Athenian quartet. Consisting of Hermia (Chelsea Beth), Lysander (Mario Ramirez), Demetrius (John Smith), and Helena (Lizabeth Waters), the group was mostly solid wavered throughout the production. Most of my concerns came from the earlier scenes in the production, though given the royal atmosphere of these moments it’s possible that they were simply acting more reserved in the presence of their superiors (i.e Theseus and Egeus). However, once they entered the forest they began to broaden a bit and allow themselves to open up a bit. For example, I couldn’t help but notice Waters initially appearing stiff and repeating the same few gesticulations while speaking, and yet by the time the whole crew is wrapped up in the tomfoolery of the forest she was easily one of the more enjoyable people to have around. She was loving one moment, livid the next, and sardonic a second later, all the while making the transitions naturally. Similarly, Smith and Ramirez shone the most once their lovesick one-upmanship in the forest begins, both trying to outdo the other in affection and manliness. All in all, the Athenians were well-cast but I needed some time to warm up to them.
And then there are the fairies. As a group they were all at once crafty and foolhardy, menacing and amiable, and most of all animated. Heather Bullard as the ever-grinning, rightly regal Titania clearly savored every line as she emanated authority over Oberon’s petulance. However, it’s Jason Graf and Marc Balester as Oberon and Puck respectively who steal the show. Graf was both an intimidating presence and a pitiable fool as he toys with almost every character directly or indirectly. He’s convincing as a scorned noble one moment and almost primal the next as he crawls spider-like on all fours. Alongside him Balester fits the role of a Shakespearean fool perfectly. He’s dry, witty, and sardonic delivering his lines, choosing the portray Puck as tired and sarcastic rather than the typical depiction of a sprightly trickster. More appropriately, Balester, dressed simply with a bowler hat and suspenders, appears more like the handyman in this collection of circa-1920s personae as he sweeps the stage, a fitting position for the character who fulfills most of Oberon’s actions for him. And yet, throughout it all, Balester maintains a mystical intrigue as he figuratively (and at one point literally) cleans the mess that he helped create and offers the suggestion that all of this may be a dream. Most importantly, Balester and Graf have excellent chemistry together as they both enjoy and lament their actions on others.
One final aspect of the show I must commend is everyone’s physicality. To the credit of the whole cast, McKenna, and Cromwell as their choreography, this show excelled at physical comedy that was somehow subtle and overt all at once. In a show ripe with loves both wanted and unwanted, men running for their lives, a purposefully poorly executed play within a play, and a notable collection of subtle innuendos, the cast and crew take every opportunity they can to steal a laugh from the audience through some physical gag, large or small. What I loved about these little, visual jokes were that none of them felt forced, out of character, or juvenile (an easy pitfall for physical comedy to fall into). Again, Graf clearly stood out in this regard, but it would be remiss of me to disregard the rest of the cast. The Athenian quartet’s scene near the end of the first half of the performance was ripe with visual gags that kept the whole audience laughing throughout. Furthermore, the mechanicals, whose crew included a wheelchair-bound Tom Snout (Mike DiChello), took every opportunity they could to get a laugh through their amusingly inane interactions, with their culminating performance of Pyramus and Thisbe as their crowning achievement.
As Shakespeare famously wrote in As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players…
…and this is exactly the vibe I get from McKenna’s Midsummer. Each character has their role to fulfill, and every actor has their part. The production as a whole, with Berkovsky’s set and the mechanicals preshow amusements, very much feels like a play within a play, as though we are witnessing a group of actors masquerading as another set of performers who happen to be putting on this show for us. It’s a smartly executed adaptation of a classic that has nestled itself in that elusive position of being innovative while staying faithful to the source material, and it most certainly gets my recommendation for any theatregoer whether or not they love Shakespeare.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues playing at The City Theatre Company for one more weekend on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at8pm and Sunday at 3pm.