Can I use fairy magic to go back in time and kick my own ass? (Or should I say Bottom?) Because 2012 Ryan completely missed director Ethan McSweeny’s original take on his giddily horny version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Luckily the good wizards over at Shakespeare Theatre Company have summoned Titania, Oberon and the rest of that magical Athenian universe back to the Harman for this summer’s iteration of their annual Free for All. The fact that Shakespeare is giving away access to a spectacle this rich and remarkable makes it something of a no-brainer.
Do I really have to go into the plot of one of the most produced plays of all time? Or mention the fact that it’s just a tad problematic? Two pairs of star-crossed lovers wander haplessly into an enchanted forest; a devious fairy named Puck (or is it Robin?) causes some romantic chaos with a love-potion, the use of which violates all contemporary notions of consent and personal agency; a drug-influenced fairy queen falls in love with an actor who’s been turned into a donkey; the pairs of lovers end up matched with the people Shakespeare makes the audience want them to be matched with which totally makes the whole mind-altering drugs thing okay; everybody watches an awesomely terrible play-within-a-play, and the fairies are mysterious and sexy. That’s pretty much it.
So what elevates this Midsummer over most? Style, execution, brilliant performances, a stunning grasp of language, and (perhaps most of all) a willingness to embrace the absurd glory that is putting on a show. Largely set in the ruins of a dilapidated playhouse (Lee Savage’s austerely beautiful set is a wonder of faded glory, as functional as it is magical), McSweeney’s production is very much a love letter to his industry. One that celebrates the kind of lighting, special effects and stagecraft that only a few troupes of Shakespeare Theatre’s ilk can possibly afford, while also joyfully embracing the artists on the Fringe, the folks doing it with perhaps more passion than skill or budget. I can sympathize.
The Free for All remount brings back much of the original cast, including Adam Green as an instigating Puck with a bit of Elvis to him. Sara Tophan makes for a regal, sexy Hippolyta and Titania, equally arresting in costume designer Jennifer Moeller’s mortal severe grey and fairy queen extravagances. She pairs well with newcomer Dion Johnstone as a majestic Theseus and Oberon with super nice pecs. Julia Ogilvie’s Helena was a personal favorite of mine. I was most impressed with her mastery of Shakespeare’s language, which, coupled with just enough of a Southern belle twang, served to make her helplessly in love, but still self-respecting Helena really pop.
In general, McSweeny gives audiences of all persuasions some eye candy, which is always nice to see. Y’know, because equality. Though, I must say, a scene involving some borderline pandering mud wrestling tends a little far towards the objectification of a particularly put-upon Hermia (gracefully played by Chasten Harmon), especially when the ladies involved conspicuously lose a lot more clothing than the fellas.
While the acts set in fairyland are perfectly lovely, this Midsummer only becomes truly revelatory post-intermission when it turns its full attention to the motley crew of Players. Here, McSweeny really goes full theatre nerd, and I loved every second of it. Largely eschewing the high-end effects of the first half, Peter Quince (Ted van Griethuysen), Nick Bottom (an absolutely delightful Tom Alan Robbins) and company’s Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play is given the full loving treatment it deserves, running whole hog with every crumbling prop and gross out body humor gag they can cram in, complete with our nobles offering running meta-commentary of a sort that presaged Mystery Science Theater 3000 by a few hundred years.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
(Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 25th Annual Free for All)
September 1 – 13
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Harman Center for the Arts
610 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Free! How to get those free tickets
It also features a “wall” costume that I will never forget, in all its clattering glory. My theatergoing guest was especially impressed at the insightful dramaturgical reasoning behind one particular butthole-based gag. (Shakespeare loved butt jokes. If you don’t think Shakespeare loved butt jokes, you are wrong and are probably no fun at parties.)
So, yes, this is a whole-hearted recommendation to go see this particular production one of the most produced plays in the world. I’m a full-blooded new play guy, and even I have to give full credit to the team at Shakespeare for breathing charming life into a sexy, dangerous, gorgeously geeky piece of theater that is so often taken for granted. And the whole giving it away for free thing? Did I mention this is a no-brainer?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare . Directed by Ethan McSweeny . Featuring Adam Green, Sara Topham, Dion Johnstone, Tom Alan Robbins, Nancy Anderson, Maxwell Balay, Christopher Bloch, Jacqui Jarrold, Herschel Sparber, Jessica Thorne, Ted van Griethuysen, Laura Artesi, Freddie Bennett, Warren Burns, Avery Clark, Ross Destiche, Chasten Harmon, Ralph Adriel Johnson, Gregory Linington, Hugh Nees, Julia Ogilvie, Taylor Robinson, Ryan Sellers and Stephen Stocking.