The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival delivers a charming, physical and often funny production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a play about fickle love and the warped perceptions that go with it.
Director Sidonie Garrett, as usual, brings together a strong cast that includes festival veterans and relative newcomers. The Thursday night performance was officially a preview, and even if it wasn’t as polished as you might prefer, the fact that the actors had a short rehearsal period while learning “Antony and Cleopatra,” the festival’s other show this year, makes the generally high quality of the production all the more admirable. This production includes some extraordinary physical performances.
Shakespeare wrote some of his funniest material for this play, in which he intermingles three storylines with a degree of finesse that impresses 420 years later.
In the framing story, Theseus, the Duke of Athens (David Fritts) is planning his wedding to the beautiful Hippolyta (Kim Martin-Cotten) but first must make an executive decision regarding the case of Hermia (Emily Peterson), who defies her father by refusing to honor the marriage contract that would wed her to Demetrius (Phillip Shinn).
She’s in love with young Lysander (Daniel Frederick) and will not betray her heart, which under the law could result in her death or in life as a nun. The Duke gives her a month to think about it.
Meanwhile, Hermia’s friend Helena (Andrea Geurtsen) is madly in love with Demetrius but can’t get him to respond.
Interceding in these affairs of the heart are Oberon, King of the Faeries (John Rensenhouse) and his less-than-efficient henchman, Puck (Jacques Roy). Oberon is at odds with his queen, Titania (Jan Rogge), over her affection for “the Indian boy,” a changeling. Under orders from Oberon, Puck begins mucking about with sleeping spells and amorous potions, which yield amusing results.
Finally, we have the “mechanicals,” the tradesmen who are to perform the “lamentable comedy” of “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the Duke’s wedding. Led by Peter Quince (Bruce Roach), the bumbling amateurs include Nick Bottom (Matthew Rapport), Francis Flute (J. Will Fritz), Robin Starveling (Ben Auxier), Tom Snout (Greg Brostrom) and Snug the Joiner (TJ Chasteen).
One could argue that the mechanicals are the real heart and soul of the play. At the very least they provide some of the most enduring images and the richest humor of the piece. Indeed, comic performances are what the show is all about and this production showcases several.
Rapport has evolved into one of the city’s finest comic actors, and he’s at his best as Bottom, the amateur who imagines himself so gifted that he should play every role. Roach, as the harried stage director who tries to manage players with enormous deficiencies, gives us one of his best performances.
Of the young principals, Peterson and Geurtsen provide inspired performances as gorgeous young women whose romantic longings are stymied repeatedly by forces in both the real and magical worlds of the play. They make the most of a scene in which they trade insults and Geurtsen captures Helena’s mounting paranoia beautifully.
As the objects of their affections, Shinn and Frederick can’t really match the women, although their performances get more interesting as the show progresses.
Festival veterans Rensenhouse and Rogge are just fine, but Oberon and Titania are virtually “straight men” to the comedy, as are Theseus and Hippolyta, who are played crisply by Fritts and Martin-Cotten.
The most remarkable performance comes from Roy, who gives us a vivid and utterly unique Puck. Roy is an athletic actor who makes the most of his athleticism, turning somersaults, bouncing off trampolines, even walking on his hands at one point. His Puck is a manic servant desperate to please, but who almost never gets it right.
Cinnamon Schultz as the First Faerie delivers an impressive physical performance of her own, chalking up some tumbling moves and a handstand or two. She can’t match Roy’s acrobatics, but I’m not sure anyone could.
Costume designer Mary Traylor delivers some sumptuous clothes, dressing the Athenians in Georgian-era gowns and cutaway tailcoats and the Faeries in classical Indian garb. Rensenhouse even wears a turban.
The performance by the mechanicals of “Pyramus and Thisbe” is really a satirical commentary by the Bard on the artificiality of theater. An actor must play a wall. A lantern represents the moon. The performers overact. They can’t remember their lines. At every moment they shatter any possible illusion.
If you wonder how the art of illusion was achieved in Shakespeare’s day, this probably provides a fairly accurate picture.