A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play in which two very different worlds crash into each other: The seen intersects with the unseen; the mortal with the magical, and, in the case of the current production at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, the intelligible with the unintelligible, and the simply brilliant with the simply strange.
The production opens with the loud and lively entrance of Theseus, Hippolyta, Philostrate and some people Shakespeare calls “others.” It’s a boisterous group, but we’re not quite sure what they’re on about. Adding to the confusion, some members of the party are inexplicably dressed like extras from The Flintstones. If you haven’t seen the play in a while, best of luck. For all the hoopla, no one seems to be communicating his or her text very well.
Enter the lovers, and not a moment too soon. These fine performers get the show beautifully and charmingly back on track, and we all relax a bit. Next come Peter Quince and the band of laborers commonly called the “mechanicals,” and hallelujah for them. As they entertainingly stumble all over each other, every line makes sense and every comedic choice makes you giggle like an idiot. They earn exit applause after their first scene.
Then we meet the fairies, who come skulking about the stage, legs bent and heads cocked like the 58th touring company of Cats. They wear face paint and outlandish costumes, consisting mostly of leggings and ragged bits of polyester, presumably to indicate that they are forest denizens. As they ooze about, their arms float before them, presumably to indicate that they’re magical (or poised for an important karate match). They put great effort into speaking in strange, disjointed tones, with single words or phrases delivered as high-pitched screams, low rumbling growls, or long, drawn-out notes, presumably to indicate that they’re very interesting and have their own language. Instead, all the vocal gymnastics, combined with all the modern dance-like oozing, crawling and gesturing, serve only to obliterate all sense of meaning from the text, leaving one straining to follow along. It’s at this point that you might experience the "oh no…" moment. That’s when you’re sitting at a play minding your own business and you suddenly start noting those early warning signs that lead you to suspect there may be cause for concern over how you’ll spend the next few hours.
Such is the oddly sandwich-like make-up of this production, which is by turns enchanting, confusing, hilarious and annoying.
Let’s focus on the positives. Matt Ducati’s Demetrius is a reasonable man trying to conduct sensible conversations with crazy people. His Albert Brooks-ish frustration is fun to watch, particularly when he’s desperately trying to extract Helena from his life. As Hermia, Meredith Sweeney displays substantial comic gifts, playing first the entitlement of the popular girl accustomed to male attention, and later, the shock and insult of being dumped not once, but twice in one crazy night. Ira Heinichen’s Lysander isn’t the shiniest performance, but he’s crystal clear, both aurally and behaviorally (which, in this production, is welcome relief). Heinichen more than holds his own among some great comic actors. When Willow Geer takes stage as Helena, you know you’re in for a treat. She performs Shakespeare so honestly and accessibly and with such comedic intelligence as to make everyone in the theatre an instant friend. Her desperation and deliciously overblown whining evokes happy memories of Lucy begging Ricky to put her in the show. Geer is a riot, and elevates the performance of each actor with whom she exchanges dialogue.
Earnestine Phillips is just terrific as thick-headed-leading-the-even-thicker-headed Peter Quince, the confused director of the ad-hoc theatrical troupe rehearsing an awful play to present before the Duke. Her motley cast of sad-sack players is portrayed by a wonderful group of actors. David Marmor’s Flute is marvelously awful as Thisbe. Jim Thoms’ Starveling has a subtle, lost quality that makes you chuckle. Understudy Savannah Southern Smith fits right in with her comically awkward Snug, who later plays an utterly pathetic Lion. Kelly Henton’s Snout is a hoot as he uncomfortably executes the role of Wall. Keep your eye on him as he’s forced to stand there while others around him emote. It’s a smorgasbord. And as Bottom, Thad Geer simply decimates the audience, reducing them to helpless puddles of laughter as he squeezes every drop of funny out of one of Shakespeare’s funniest characters. It’s a divinely hammy, over-the-top performance and one of the show’s highlights.
Also in the One to Watch Department, Andrew Zimmer is every bit as good in the smaller role of Philostrate as are others in larger roles. His witty delivery adds even more 11th-hour laughs to the play’s final sequence.
Elizabeth Tobias, Aaron Hendry, and Abby Craden as, respectively, Puck, Oberon, and Titania, are good actors who fare poorly buried in all that behavior and accoutrements.
With the production’s assets and deficits divided into such neat quadrants, the bulk of credit and criticism must fall to director Melora Marshall who has placed physical and vocal obligations on performers who might have been better able to serve the play and entertain the audience without them.
Val Miller’s costumes are also hit-and-miss. While there is some nice-looking period garb, the abundance of obviously synthetic material makes the wardrobe look overall cheap, while some pieces are just plain off. Beside the aforementioned cavewoman dresses, there are velour pants and modern corduroy slacks. Certain fairies are attired busily but not esthetically, and others appear to be wearing items from their own closets.
With the open stage and the woods as backdrop, there’s no set design, but some set dressing. Here again, ragged bits of polyester cloth fail to evoke the desired mystical atmosphere, and plastic flowers in the midst of all that natural greenery just look tacky.
At the end of the play, Puck urges us, if we’ve been offended, to imagine it was all a dream. But it’s hard to know what to make of a dream that is both wonderful and just plain weird. Still, even with its shortcomings and the difficulty understanding certain players, there’s enough to love here. Beside the always-satisfying experience of seeing Shakespeare in this beautiful setting, the better performances make it well worth the trip to the woods.
But first, you may want to read the play.