As one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream would seem to risk repetitiveness. However, the sheer wealth of creativity in Shakespeare’s mash-up of Ancient Greece with British folklore, covering everything from love to music to theater, offers a nearly inexhaustible source of imaginative possibility. The Arden Theatre’s production of Midsummer takes its cues from the play’s own inventiveness, but nevertheless has a few surprises in store.
By far the strongest part of this already strong production is the acting, made even more enjoyable by the production’s highlighting of more unexpected characters. Rachel Camp channels all of Helena’s frustrated love into unshakeable self-determination, pursuing Demetrius with relentless ukulele serenades only to bravely ignore (with great personal sacrifice) both his public displays of affection and his shirtless abs while defending herself from his apparent mockery. Dan Hodge in a particularly amusing turn as Bottom leads the rude mechanicals, while their antics are punctuated by the sparing lines of Robin Starvling (Brandon J. Pierce): a skittish introvert never seen without his stuffed puppy, who nevertheless delivers each mild observation or exclamation of fear in a hilariously dramatic basso rumble.
Lindsay Smiling steals the show as Oberon, rejecting the standard interpretation of a stern deliverer of straight lines for a charmer more akin to the schlubby yet likable heroes of a Judd Apatow comedy. Smiling frames Oberon’s plot against Titania as a poorly-repressed urge to win back her attention: when Oberon succeeds at claiming her ward as his page while she remains distracted, Smiling shows his lingering dissatisfaction, and imbues the ending of her entanglement with Bottom with disgust, not triumph. This more warm-hearted take on Oberon’s love life supports Smiling’s efforts to make Oberon’s investment in the romantic travails of the Athenian lovers seem genuinely sympathetic, and even somewhat redemptive. Katharine Powell as Titania greets his matchmaking efforts with favor, his impossible task achieved to win her back.
Another notable facet of Smiling’s performance is the chemistry between him and Mary Tuomanen’s Puck, truly a bromance of mythic proportions. Tuomanen masters Puck’s energy with impeccable comic timing, inspired tumbling, and some powerful musical numbers – then adds to an already crackerjack performance the highly enjoyable push-and-pull dynamic of a seasoned comedy duo. Their scenes unfold like a hilarious buddy comedy, whether they’re lighting up a hookah while watching the theatrics of the Athenians, or – after a mishap with the love-in-idleness – recoiling in mutual horror at the possibility of falling in love with each other.
Paige Hathaway’s scenic design has a curiously ambiguous relationship to the rest of the production. The industrial grey bricks and steel girders of the backdrop, balcony, and overhang contrast nicely with the smooth wood of the thrust stage, but no attempt is made to match the play’s civilization/wilderness dichotomy with the blocking: mortals and fairies both roam the whole stage at will. Similarly, the chairs and lampshades climbing askew up the walls may hint at the fairies’ caprice, or the chaos of the plot upending the natural order, or perhaps just an appreciation for modern art. However, though the set is somewhat puzzling, it is certainly eye-catching, and it provides a dynamic yet sturdy base for the energetic production.
The vagaries of the setting are echoed by the costumes by designer Olivera Gajic. The production is modern dress, and Gajic successfully evokes character on the individual level: Hippolyta’s severe bob, giant sunglasses, and structured white jumpsuit and blazer give her a somewhat distancing class and sophistication; Lysander’s Nantucket Red shorts and boat shoes place him in the same social class as the similarly preppy Hermia and Demetrius, while Helena’s plaid shirt, unshaven armpits, engineer boots, and asymmetric haircut give her a countercultural flair that reflects her feelings of exclusion from the group; Egeus dresses like the Texan oil baron whose patriarchal mores he shares. The problem (such as it is) is that there is not much of a coherent theme throughout the production. While it makes sense individually for Oberon to wear golden Hammer pants and snake-patterned bracers, Puck to sport electric blue hair with striped leggings, cargo shorts, and some unfortunate drum major’s jacket, and Titania to stride confidently in a flowing yellow jumpsuit and matching fifty-foot-long cape, as a group it is hard to draw conclusions about the fairies and their contrast to the mortals.
Nevertheless, the set and costuming provide a solid backdrop to the actors’ performances and director Matt Pfeiffer’s clever storytelling. Pfeiffer balances brisk pacing with latitude for comic timing, banking on his actors’ expertise to (for example) navigate a full minute pause in the action as Bottom waits for his helmet to stop rolling around on the stage so he can finish his monologue. Pfeiffer employs a relatively light hand at textual editing (though his splicing together of Scenes 1 and 2 in Act 3 is particularly effective) and a thoughtful treatment of role-doubling. The initial pre-marital rockiness of Theseus (Smiling) and Hippolyta (Powell) flows smoothly into the conflict of Oberon and Titania, portrayed by the same actors; Oberon’s successful intervention for the four lovers is finalized by Theseus’ blessing on their marriages, which finds favor with Hippolyta; the happily married royal couple watch the rude mechanicals put on a show for their amusement, much as the four lovers (Taysha Marie Canales as Hermia/Snout, Sean Close as Lysander/Flute, Pierce as Demetrius/Starvling, and Camp as Helena/Snug) entertained the fairies.
In a final grace note, Pfeiffer teams up once more with original music and sound designer Alex Bechtel for a typically musical production. Pfeiffer’s signature acoustic covers of rock artists like The Kinks and Eddie Vedder are here mixed with the country flavor of Bonnie Raitt and Don Williams, and the cast’s instrumental and vocal performances give the production an indie/folk feel. Meanwhile, Pfeiffer and Bechtel employ the talents of Eliana Fabiyi (Musician/Fairies) for the rest of the production’s original score, using her violin and a loop pedal to create musical and technological magic.
The result is a relentlessly engaging production. The Arden Theatre Company’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is both contemporary and Elizabethan, musical and comedic, faithful and unpredictable: the match of Shakespeare’s creativity with considerable modern talent.