7/15/2023 A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse
A PALE-MOON MIDSUMMER “MIDSUMMER”
Before launching into my laundry list of nits and quibbles about the Shakespeare Tavern’s latest foray into the Athenian Wood, let me preface by saying there are many moments here of laugh-out-loud funny, some performances that are the equal of any I’ve seen, and an overall experience that meets (for a large part) my elevated expectations for this Shakespearean favorite. In fact, most of my quibbles are a result of former Tavern Midsummers, particularly an all-female 2021 staging, and an incredibly original and compelling 2011 staging. To be blunt, this production, in comparison, pales like the moon on a bright summer morning.
Shakespeare’s Dream is probably his most accessible and familiar story. My own archives list no fewer than seven productions I’ve commented on. I have personally been part of three separate mountings and seen at least a dozen more in venues in and out of Atlanta (including Canada’s Stratford Festival – and the less said about that Zorba-esque exercise, the better. Offa, Indeed!). I was especially ecstatic about a gender-fluid production staged by London’s National Theatre at the height of the pandemic (somehow, Oberon and Titania switched roles and Puck went especially nuts with the love-juice, resulting in multiple couplings not envisioned by Shakespeare).
So with all that been-there seen-that potential in my expectations slot, I once again braved weekend highway construction in my AC-less jalopy on a sweltering midsummer afternoon to witness the “Traditional” approach to the piece, to see if my overwhelmingly positive responses were mere bardgeek-induced whimsy.
I’ve seen Midsummers set in a forest of beds-on-stilts, cast with “tag-team” Pucks, with mechanicals dressed in thatch, 2009’s GSF backstage-centric extravaganza, even one in which Puck wore Buddy Holly glasses and a superman shirt. In fact, creatively-directed approaches seem more the norm than the exception.
But here we have a Midsummer with no real directorial “flourishes.” To be sure, it’s never a bad idea for a director to keep “out of the way” and let the text and the cast do the “heavy lifting.” But there are some questionable design choices here that got in the way. In particular we have a lighting design that seems to have been created by someone who never saw the colors of a Midsummer forest night (although choice of colors is perfect for an autumn afternoon), a design that includes a throbbing pulse whenever “magic” is happening – which proves more distracting and irritating than enhancing, since magic “happens” during at least half the play.
We have a final Mechanicals scene that seems flat and not as funny as it should be. There is a piece of bloody nose business (experienced by Bottom) that has decidedly limited appeal, especially since it is so weakly created. In all the Mechanicals scenes in fact, I was left with a sense that the director and actors were condescending to them, making them look unnecessarily foolish. Their decency and sincerity (and wit) are thoroughly lost in the quest for gags and “bits.”
What DOES work is the over-the-top chew-the-scenery performance by Amanda Lindsey McDonald as Puck (I especially enjoyed their moment of defiance towards Oberon), the fiercely elegant portrayals of the lovers by Anna Fontaine (Helena), Anna Holland (Hermia), Daryel Monson (Lysander) and O’Neil Delapenha (Demetrius), the archly vivid Hippolyta and the commandingly compelling Titania of Mary Ruth Ralston, and the up-for-the-task fully prepared performances by understudies Philip Aaron Brasher (Theseus/Oberon) and Sarah Hack (Starveling/Cobweb).
What also works is the gender-fluid choices by the mixed cast – Bottom played by a (seeming) female as a (seeming) male, and several intra-Mechanical affections and “crushes” expressed with no regard for actor/character (seeming) gender.
So, although it’s difficult to judge from a rabid Midsummer fan’s perspective, I just may have enjoyed this more if the memory of so many so-much-better Midsummers weren’t still bouncing around my aging skull. This production does prove that Midsummer is a pleasant wallow in magic and mayhem, even if it doesn’t exactly measure up to my own (admittedly high) expectations. The audience who shared this matinee (including some very young ‘uns) were thoroughly captivated and enthralled.
You could say that for me, this time, the well of laughter has a definitive Bottom, but sometimes, barely enough is still enough to while away a sweltering traffic-haunted afternoon and put a silly bardgeek grin on my face. Huzzah!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com) #ASCMidsummer