By CJ Williams
‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – Directed by Patrick Swanson; Written by William Shakespeare; Stage Management by Marsha Smith; Composition & Sound Design by David Reiffel; Set Design by Eric Levenson; Puppetry & Design by Elizabeth Rocha; Costume Design by Jessica Pribble; Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan. Presented by Actor’s Shakespeare Project at the Multicultural Center, 41 2nd Street Cambridge, MA through June 4.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s take on “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is both a faithful and thoroughly up-to-date rendition of a classic. But that’s what Shakespeare, performed and produced well, is in a nutshell: timeless. Not every cast or production team can pull that kind of rabbit out of the theatrical hat, though – even the best productions of the Bard often end up slogging through a sad stodgy seriousness in using the centuries old Elizabethan cant, costume, and anything else historical they can get their hands on. (Either that, or they blow it all on a modern spin that mangles the wordplay and subtlety of the language.)
But the truth is, Shakespeare wrote for the crowds. He wrote sidesplitting comedy, and timeless tragedies – and since the human heart and the human mob doesn’t much change century to century in its basic appetite for humor and tears, Shakespeare remains a fertile ground for stagecraft, innovation, and fidelity. ASP takes “Dream” for a jaunt that excels at all three – and that’s a tightrope walk.
If you don’t know the basic storyline of the classic comedy, it begins in Athens with (what else?) star-crossed lovers. It is, after all, a comedy. Duke Theseus, and his betrothed, Hippolyta, are faced with a foursome of young people who just won’t like the pairings their parents have planned for them. In this case, a stubborn Hermia has fallen head-over heels for the impish Lysander, against her father’s wishes, since he has planned for her to wed Demetrius. Demetrius may or may not care much for Hermia, but it’s immediately clear that Helena – a childhood playmate of Hermia – cares fervently for him. Trouble ensues at once, and so do the laughs.
Jake Athyal plays Lysander to great comedic effect. His slapstick and mugging will get anyone from a 3 year-old to grandma giggling. His Lysander, while not the brightest bulb in the box, has an impish edge I haven’t seen in any previous incarnations – and I’ve seen close to a dozen. But if his performance was a highlight for me, I can’t say his cast mates don’t keep up. Hermia (Elle Borders) and Helena (Monica Giordan) are hilarious, as is Demetrius (Mac Young). In fact, this is the first interpretation of Dream in which I’ve been as floored with giggles by the lovers as by the fairies and Puck’s peccadilloes.
As the play progresses, things get doubly, then triply crossed, as is par for the course in Shakespearean comedy. Lovers love others, and backwards and forwards.
One aspect this production also covers particularly well is the blocking. Director Swanson and stage manager Martha Smith take Shakespeare’s notorious lack of stage directions and plug in some serious farcical slapstick. Better than the Three Stooges, but entirely appropriate to the material, it’s clearly been pulled out of the hints and opportunities found in the text, and the actors pull off all the physical fun with as much enthusiasm as the verbal badinage.
Perhaps in light of the comedic excellence of the cast, Puck’s mischief felt a bit dull. Although a few fun plays with lighting and a cardboard figurine are inventive, and Oberon and Puck play well off of each other, Puck himself simply doesn’t have a foil – or perhaps has not been played with as distinct a zaniness to stand out against the high comedy of the entire cast. Speaking of the cast, Bottom’s every ham-fisted line is fully played by Steven Barkhimer, whose performance alone is enough to keep you laughing all day. Or week.
As the production winds down, all two-plus hours of it, you won’t feel like you’ve been in a small theater packed against fellow Bostonians. I can’t imagine you’ll feel like it’s been more than a moment, “no more yielding than a dream”, transported into a wood in ancient Athens.
Bring a friend, bring the family, perhaps even bring the kids (although perhaps not too small – the Shakespearean bawdiness is played up, and fits well with the text, but the previously mentioned blocking make it maybe a little too suggestive for smaller eyes). But do come, and if you have (un)earned luck, you’ll no doubt enjoy this world class interpretation of a Shakespeare standout as much as I did. For more info, go to: http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/plays-events/a-midsummer-nights-dream/