Ethan McSweeny’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a feast for the senses. The Shakespeare Theatre Company has turned McSweeny loose to traffic in the magic of the theatre that weaves its potent spell in Sidney Harman Hall. From the opening scene in the court of Athens – circa late 1940s – to the final tableau’s fairy farewell, McSweeny’s production evokes fantasy and wonder.
Thanks to a fine group of actors, the production can also boast a hint of danger and a playful irreverence that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is theatre to be enjoyed where “Shakespeare play” means entertainment, not a static piece of literature with footnotes and a stodgy and scholarly essay.
In lesser hands, A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be confusing, due to the intersecting plot lines, but in this clearly rendered production, the spectacle and performances clarify the story.
The text is intact, for anyone worried about too many liberties being taken. Beginning with a royal welcome for the Duke and his new bride, Hippolyta, the formal world of the Athenian court is established. Visions of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor addressing British subjects came to mind as Theseus – Tim Campbell – and Hippolyta – Sara Topham – speak to the assembly about their impending wedding celebration.
The younger members of the court, soon to be harried and mismatched lovers all, range from a smartly dressed Helena and Demetrius – Christiana Clark and Chris Myers – to the guitar wielding hipster Lysander – Robert Beitzel – and bobby soxer, Hermia – Amelia Pedlow – for whom the young men are pining.
When the common folk – known popularly as the “mechanicals” – arrive to rehearse their “most lamentable and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe for the Duke’s nuptials, their wardrobe suggests cultured gentlemen more than rough laborers, but the conceit works in this production. These ad hoc players would seem at home in any rehearsal hall where passionate amateurs actors think of themselves as first rate thespians. (I’m speaking of the characters in Shakespeare’s play, not the actors onstage – more about them later!)
As the lovers crisscross their way through the Athenian forests in pursuit of each other, and the theatre troupe seeks a cozy spot to rehearse their play, we also meet the denizens of the fairy world: Oberon and Titania, the royal couple, and their minions, including the ever-present Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck, the impish chief of staff for the fairy king.
The stage of Sidney Harman Hall has been transformed into an old theatre in disrepair that serves as the broader world of both the court of Duke Theseus and the forests that surround Athens where much of the action takes place. McSweeney and his design collaborators have crafted a bold look for the scenic and costume elements of the production.
McSweeney and his designers (along with their crews, no doubt) use the Harman’s resources to great advantage. Shakespeare Theatre Company veteran scenic designer Lee Savage’s crumbling, dusty theatre is also the perfect setting for Shakespeare’s fairy kingdom where found objects and costumes become the playthings of the immortals. Jennifer Moeller’s costume designs anchor the mortals in their courtly world of the mid-20th century and give freedom to the fairy folk to be timeless, sensual versions of children playing dress up. The production is accented by Tyler Micoleau’s evocative and ever-changing lighting, and the work of composer and sound designer Fitz Patton.
When we see the world of the supernatural meld with the world of the ruined playhouse, the magic of Shakespeare’s contrived world and McSweeny’s production find welcome companions. There is no leftover prop or tattered costume the fairies won’t take on as a found treasure.
Inhabiting the magnificent physical world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are the performances, which are equal to the task at hand, lead in no small part by Oberon and Titania. Tim Campbell, commanding and dangerous, and Sara Topham, imposing and regal, strike memorable figures as the king and queen of the fairy world. They have a sensual chemistry that separates their Oberon and Titania from their grounded, dual roles as Theseus and Hippolyta.
Adam Green’s Puck personifies the sprightly faun of classic illustrations, even down to hinting at his origins as a sprite with cloven hooves, although here he appears more as a circus performer on his day off, rather than a mythical half goat. He may also be more skin and cartilage than skin and bones judging from his acrobatic turns and serpentine maneuvers.
Campbell, Topham and Green also have a strong command of some Shakespeare’s most memorable verse passages, while all the fairies are triple threats, singing and dancing evocative selections to delight their queen and the appreciative audience.
In a production with many delights, director McSweeny’s finest achievement was his casting of the mechanicals. Lead by one of Washington DC’s grandest acting treasures, Ted van Griethuysen as the actor-manager of the amateur theatre troupe, the mechanicals are an embarrassment of riches – nuanced, bold, fearless comics who work as both a well-oiled machine of timing and hilarity, even as each performer creates a vivid character.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Scheduled to close December 30, 2012
Shakespeare Theatre Company at
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $43 – $105
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202 547-1122
Van Griethuysen is the quiet yet firm leader of the gang, Peter Quince, feeding his inner show business fanatic, while keeping the others in line. He finds a willing and welcome accomplice in the sartorially spiffed out, blustery form of Nick Bottom the weaver, who puts the ham in hambone and leaves his heart and soul on the stage every moment he takes the limelight.
Bottom is brought to life with splendor, and panache by Stratford Festival and Broadway veteran Bruce Dow making his first appearance in an STC production. (I hope it’s not his last.) Shakespeare gives Bottom a lion’s share of comic material, and Dow has a field day with it, and takes the role to new heights as a grandiloquent performer trapped in the form of a lovable fool.
Speaking of lions, also among the mechanicals is Robert Dorfman as Snug the joiner, who takes part in “Pyramus and Thisbe” as the ferocious lion. Dorfman may have the fewest lines as Snug, but his performance gets laughs galore. Christopher Block, as Starveling, Herschel Sparber, as Snout (all 6 feet 9 inches of him), and David Graham Jones, as Francis Flute (a memorable Thisbe) round out the mechanicals and help to solidify their status as the grandest scene-stealers of all.
As a holiday treat where sparkling treasures and tinkling bells are provided by magical fairies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of the outside world and a great reminder that the theatre can be a home for joy and wonder.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. Directed by Ethan McSwenny. Featuring Tim Campbell (Theseus/Oberon), Sara Topham (Hippolyta/Titania), Adam Green (Philostrate/Puck), Bruce Dow (Bottom), Robert Beitzel (Lysander), Christiana Clark (Helena), Chris Myers (Demetrius), Amelia Pedlow (Hermia). Nancy Anderson (Fairy), Christopher Bloch (Starveling), Robert Dorfman (Snug), David Graham Jones (Francis Flute), Lawrence Redmond (Egeus), Herschel Sparber (Tom Snout), and Ted van Griethuysen (Peter Quince). Ensemble: Maxwell Balay, John Bambery, Jacqui Jarrold, Joe Mallon, Max Reinhardsen, Rohan Saxena, Gracie Terzian, Jessica Thorne, and Katherine Turner.
Lee Savage (scenic designer), Fitz Patton (composer and sound designer), Jessica Moeller (costume designer), Tyler Micoleau (lighting designer), Peter Pucci (choreographer); Joseph Smelser (production stage manager), Brandon Prendergast (stage manager), Hannah O’Neil (assistant stage manager); Jenny Lord (assistant director). Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Reviewed by Jeff Walker