So often it seems that the two pairs of fairy-dusted lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream come off as, well, whiny. Their love is either unrequited or forbidden. They get lost. They start to go to pieces when things don’t go their way.
It is no wonder that either the mischievous Puck or the company of fools in this play – particularly the funny guy with the donkey’s head -- usually end up stealing the show. And try to steal the show they do in Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s production of Midsummer, running through August 19 in Buffalo, NY.
Director Kyle LoConti, though, has loaded the lovers’ dice with physical comedy. The result is a great ensemble production where lovers are as likely as buffoons to elicit laughter. And the actors are not the only stars: Shelley Hain’s elegant choreography of the fairies and Katie Menke’s sound design, which paints an aural rainforest, both deserve special mention.
The set and costumes, evoking Honduras in the 1920s, provide a fresh take on this frequently produced play. Nathan Elsener has designed the outdoor stage to look like castle walls draped with greenery and tropical flowers. When the action moves deeper into the rainforest, the fairies insert parasols, painted and reshaped to resemble huge flowers.
Costume designer Dixon Reynolds dresses the fairies in brilliant hues and garments inspired by the indigenous people of Honduras. Titania’s and Oberon’s headdresses are especially beautiful, featuring multi-colored spikes. Puck, played by Chad Fess, wears metal encrusted armbands and loincloth, and his hair is shaved into a punk version of a Mohawk. Fess’s delivery toys with the timing of the lines, making you wonder whether Puck is really clever, or just a beat or two behind his boss, Oberon.
The Athenians, meanwhile, look like British colonizers with their khaki-colored linens, tall boots and jodhpurs. Theseus (Jonathan Shuey) even wears a straw pith helmet, turning his regal air a bit goofy. Costumes and casting are especially helpful in distinguishing the petite Hermia (Emily Hin) with her long dark curls and linen shift, from the tall Helena (Mary Ryan) with short, red hair and riding pants and boots. That the Athenians are overdressed for the climate becomes quickly evident as the young lovers get all mixed up in the woods.
Demetrius (played with growing exasperation by Geoff Pictor as he’s chased by the hopeful Helena) loses one or more items of clothing every time we see him, until he wears only his skivvies and garter-equipped socks. And that’s pretty much what all the lovers are down to when they have their hilarious and pivotal confrontation in the woods just before intermission. Hin is especially good as she goes from bewildered to clingy – she jumps onto Lysander (a muscular Kevin Donohue) and refuses to be peeled off him. Then this diminutive Hermia has to be restrained by both men when she tries to wallop Helena. The quartet plays this scene with dizzying twists and turns as each accuses the others or challenges a rival.
By contrast, the scenes with the local yokels who want to put on a play for the Duke’s nuptials seem almost placid. But they’re just as finely crafted, building first to Bottom’s transformation into an ass and then to the performance of their play.
Jeff Coyle, as Bottom the weaver, is masterful. He nails the overreaching actor whose talent is no match for his ego. Once Puck turns Bottom into an ass, Coyle trots like a donkey, swaying his behind with delicate grace. But his most sidesplitting bit is his prolonged dying scene as Pyramus in which he manages to stab himself repeatedly, slit his wrists, spill forth his guts, hamstring himself, get riddled by machine gun bullets and succumb to what seems like consumption.
James Robert Steiner’s meek Flute, meanwhile, finds his shrill voice as the effeminate but not quite feminine Thisbe. He adds his own death-scene flourish, throwing a curtsy into the middle of his/her demise by self-inflicted stabbing. Details like that add up to a delightful and rewarding night of open-air theater.