8/7/2021 A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse
WELL MET BY MOONLIGHT
Happy the Bardophile who wallows in a 2020 video Dream only to see the same play anew within a year! Happy the Tavern-going public who gets a chance to return to the Beer and Shepherd’s Pie (albeit masked) after a too-long shut-down! Happy the discerning play-goer who gets to see an original staging, performed (and created) entirely by women who gleefully play with gender and pronouns and (indeed) expectations! Happy the writer who can copy and paste a column previously written about a play previously praised!
Indeed, if this review gives you a sense of déjà vu, it’s because I wrote much of it ten years ago when I last witnessed this play gallop across the Tavern stage. Bits and thoughts may also have found their way into numerous other Midsummers between then and now, especially last summer’s superb video stream from London’s Bridge Theatre.
My only quibble here is that the combination of new and experienced faces didn’t always gel to the best advantage, with over-the-top wonderful direction (and performances from the veterans) clashing a bit too glaringly with some of the just-off-book readings from (a small number of) the newcomers.
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably his most accessible and familiar story. I have written about it often (probably more than any other Shakespeare piece) I have personally been part of three separate productions 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!).
So, with all that been-there seen-that potential in my expectations slot, I once again ventured forth upon a midsummer eve to witness the New American Shakespeare Tavern’s return to live performance, hoping my exuberance for the Bridge Theatre production would not dim my enthusiasm for this (and future) mountings.
To recap, 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, 2018’s Alliance / Looking Glass production set in Atlanta’s Botanical Gardens and performed by six chameleon-like gardeners, even one in which Puck wore Buddy Holly glasses and a superman shirt. It should be difficult to surprise me with this one.
And yet, here we are, the all-female cast and director (the most excellent Laura Cole) wreaking havoc with our expectations of gender and doubling – Theseus and Titania are doubled as are Hippolyta and Oberon; a few fairies Shakespeare never created (Pomegranate, Storm, and Brian) had to be added to Bottom’s awakening scene because the scripted sprites (Moth, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Cobweb) are played by the actors currently asleep on stage as the lovers; Mary Ruth Ralston and Sarah Beth Hester have a blast exuding machismo, testosterone, and not a little toxicity as Demetrius and Lysander.
And, in a visual flourish that truly astounds with its elegant simplicity and exquisite beauty, all the fairy minions and their leaders are costumed in silky butterfly wings they can flaunt or hide behind, depending on the anger/danger level of Oberon or Titania. Its a breathtakingly simple design choice that dazzles and sends us into a wallow of magical rapture. Kudos to Costume coordinator Anné Carole Butler!
Beyond that, the production returns us to a traditional “Quartet” scene that lacks the spark of the Tavern’s 2011 staging and a standard over-the-top go-for-the-cheap-laugh final Mechanicals scene. Don’t get me wrong – both scenes are staged competently and performed with skill, but they just lacked that added layer of wit, silliness, zest, and effortlessness that characterize so many recent productions, and may have created in me unfairly unreasonable expectations.
And, we do have some truly remarkably talented women on stage here. I particularly loved Cameryn Richardson’s Helena, who showed us a veritable smorgasbord of witty and wise character choices and an incredibly fluent and lyrical command of Shakespeare’s language. This was a strong and compelling Helena, one of the best I’ve seen. Shanté DeLoach was a wry and effective Puck, and really unlike any Puck I’ve seen before (come to think of it, have I ever seen a Puck who was like any other Puck? I think not), and brilliantly effective for all that. Kudos also to T'Shauna Henry for giving us a sweet and introverted Snug/Lion.
As expected, all the “veterans” gave outstanding readings – Rachel Frawley as Oberon and Hippolyta, Kelly Criss as Flute, Jaclyn Hofmann Faircloth as Egeus and Peter Quince, Destiny Freeman as Snout and Pomegranate. I have to confess I thought Jasmine Renee Ellis’ Bottom was more underplayed than I preferred, though she did have more than few compellingly quiet and introspective moments.
Rather than listing all the others, let me just gripe that they were a little paler in comparison, a little more monochromatic than I would prefer, and a little too much in “recite” mode to be really effective. But, like Miss Ellis, they all had moments of excellence, and none were in any way incompetent. I truly expect great things from all of them in future roles.
So the remarkable thing about this production is that it still reminds us that, no matter how familiar a particular Shakespearean piece may be, creative and inspired directors and actors can make it seem new and fresh and rich with “I-never-noticed-that-before” moments. Going out on imaginative limbs can be fun and can be revealing, but not more so than simply knowing these characters so well they can move and amuse us with their fanciful story.
This is a supremely funny play, and you truly need put it on your summer calendar. In this production, the well of laughter truly hath no bottom!
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #INAST_ASC_MSND)