A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Puck You
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
When a Shakespearean company decides to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it signals to me that a few things might be going on. The first is that they need to either open or close the season with a crowd pleaser. You can do all the Antony and Cleopatra‘s you want, but the fact is that people like fairies and not thinking too hard. So, Midsummer = butts in seats, which, no shade, we all gotta eat. Occasionally, a Midsummer choice is about luring the audience in with the promise of whimsy, only to forcefully hit them over the heads with something terribly dark and traumatic, in an ill-conceived “edgy” fashion. This is sometimes fascinating, more often embarrassing. Luckily, that’s not what’s going on in BSF’s latest trot out of this well-worn play, in fact, quite the opposite. A Midsummer Night’s Dream in late July is about as risky as A Christmas Carol at, well, Christmas. This could not be more straight down the middle if it tried, and that’s both the joy and the problem with it.
Director Tom Delise rather stubbornly digs in on a very, very traditional interpretation of this play. Honestly, I found it a little limp in places, kind of a Midsummer on autopilot. I mean, is it delightful to see colorfully clad fairies in floral crowns against the lush green backdrop of the meadow of Evergreen? Of course it is, I’m not made of fucking stone. I just wished for some surprises for a person such as myself, who has not only seen this play numerous times, but has been in it, more than once (Hippolyta and Helena, in case you’re wondering). The lovers are all appropriately big-eyed and attractive, the Fairy Queen is beautiful, the Fairy King handsome, Puck capering, Bottom boastful. It’s all there, it all works, these are talented folks in a gorgeous setting reciting some of the most famous words in the English cannon. There is absolutely massive pleasure to be taken in that, but there isn’t any challenge, and very little concept. That’s kind of snobby, and really didn’t matter to the cute kids giggling in the front row, so YMMV.
That being said, there are some (I suspect) actor driven choices that stood out and glittered. Valerie Dowdle’s Titania may indeed be beautiful, but she’s also a little rough around the edges, which keeps it interesting. She’s aggressive and earthy, pointedly but never ridiculously sexual, a Fairy Queen who might have a cigarette once in awhile. Elijah Moreland is gorgeous and regal as Oberon, who he plays with a smirk and some truly adorable audience interaction. Shaquille Steward steals the show as Bottom, especially near the end, where he nails the “play-within-a-play” concept absolutely perfectly. Steward is comic, but not scene chewing, he gives as much as he takes, particularly with Jeff Miller’s Flute as “Thisby”. Kathryne Daniels turned out to be my favorite of the afternoon, what a great Peter Quince! All the more impressive since he can be sort of a throwaway. She’s hilarious, absolutely stellar, especially while “directing” the thick-as-a-brick Mechanicals in their tragical comedy; I’m looking forward to seeing much more of her. I wish the lovers (Liz Galuardi as Hermia, Micaela Mannix as Helena, Fred Fletcher-Jackson as Lysander and Davon Harris as Demetrius) had been more differentiated, I mean, I get that they’re supposed to be interchangeable, but if you don’t try to do something with that concept, they end up falling a bit flat. Similarly with Puck (Allie Press), all the waspish, jaunty, mischievous elements were there, but didn’t add up to enough of a character for me. Perhaps more chemistry with Moreland would have helped? The relationship between Oberon and Puck is one of the most intriguing in the play, but I didn’t feel it here.
Costumes (Jessica Behar) were hit and miss, an odd modgepodge that didn’t quite gel (though I liked Oberon’s mohawk-like headpiece). They felt thrown together out of costumes intended for different shows, Ren-Fest inspired corsets over tye-dye and leggings. There were also the (expected) long white toga dresses on the Athenian ladies, a choice that got less practical as rain started to drench the stage. And the Wonder Woman headpiece on Hippolyta and dress-up-box butterfly wings on Titania could be given a miss completely, both outfits would have looked much better without those elements. As the primary technical element of BSF’s arsenal, I often wish they would get a little more intentional around costuming. Oh, and you have to give Bottom a nose when he’s the donkey, otherwise he looks like a bunny.
BOTTOM LINE: Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is enjoyable, if not the most exciting thing you’ve ever seen. This company has taken risks before (last season’s early-American styled Julius Caesar comes to mind, as does their all-female version of Henry IV) but they don’t here, and that’s mostly okay. It is what it is, and what it is is pretty, and well-done, a lovely, inoffensive, easy evening out at the theater. And what’s wrong with that?
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