By Karen Isaacs
You may feel that another production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be a bore; after all it is produced all the time.
But you would be mistaken. Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage’s artistic director has given us a magnificent production which mines all the humor and romance of this comedy. Make sure you see it before it closes on Sunday, Oct. 8.
Though A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play almost everyone seems to know, it is not an easy play to produce. It combines a variety of worlds and attitudes from the emotionally high strung love of young people, to a fairy kingdom which shows us a marriage that has lasted centuries, plus an adult “political” marriage. It combines the monarchs with the lesser nobility and the working men of the kingdom.
Too often, these disparate elements can be unbalanced with either the young love, the slapstick or the fairy kingdom taking over the play.
Not so in this production. Each element is given its appropriate weight and attention.
If you have forgotten this play, it features two sets of young lovers: Hermia who loves Lysander despite her father’s disapproval plus Demetrius who the father has said should marry Hermia and Helena who desperately loves Demetrius. The first and last acts are set in the kingdom of Duke Theseus who is about to marry Queen Hippolyta, a warrior queen whom he bested in battle.
The middle part of the play is set during one night in a forest which is overseen by Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the fairies and their courts including Oberon’s ‘right hand person” Puck. But this old married couple is having a fight and Oberon want to embarrass Titania. Into these woods stray the four young lovers and through a mistake by Puck, soon find their infatuations all changed around. Also coming into the wood is a group of “mechanicals,” working men who are rehearsing a play to be presented in honor of the Duke’s wedding. Oberon uses one of these to trick Titania.
Of course, all is straightened out by the end of the play and all the lovers are happy.
As a theatergoer, you will also be happy from the moment you walk into the theater and see the beautifully stylized poster and program cover of an attractive woman in a 1930’s glamourous gown standing on a crescent moon.
Entering the theater you behold Alexander Dodge’s magnificent set: a European style Middle Ages gate house that would protect the city and the city skyline in the background. That gatehouse rotates and the other side, covered in foliage, makes a wonderful forest.
The costume design by Joshua Pearson continues this sense of the early 20th century, with servants in black dresses with white aprons and caps, and women in mid-calf length dresses. To stress the youth of the young lovers, the four are dressed as students with Lysander and Demetrius in short pants and blazers and the Helena and Hermia in skirts, blouses and blazers. Each carries a different piece of sports equipement.
Add to the production the effective lighting by York Kennedy, the sound by Broken Chord and projections by Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley and you are transported into this magical world.
It’s interesting that Tresjnak has made no attempt to have the fairies soar around the stage or for the court of Titania and Oberon to be played by children. Instead he lets us use our imagination. We can easily recognize that Titania and Oberon are, in fact, Theseus and Hippolyta; that Puck is Theseus’ servant, Philostrate and that the fairies surrounding Titania are servants from the manor.
The entire cast is excellent. Esau Pritchett and Scarlett Strallen are the adults in this play as both Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania. Though they play two pairs of “royals,” the characters are very different in both appearance and attitude. Just to see Hippolyta’s reaction to Theseus’ lack of sympathy for the young lovers is clear, understated and funny. When the fairy king and queen they are more direct and sensual.
As the four young lovers, Tom Pecinka as Lysander stands out though all of them are excellent. Each Jenny Leona (Hermia), Damian Jermaine Thompson (Lysander) and Fedna Laure Jacquet (Helena) may be adult performers, but they totally captured the impulsiveness of teenagers.
Puck is an essential role in the fairy kingdom; he is part servant and part knave enjoying the havoc he creates. Will Apicella may not be the best Puck I’ve seen, but he captures effectively the duality of the character: good servant and mischievous goof-up.
The third major element in this play are the mechanicals. Here, both the casting and the direction is outstanding. Each of the men creates a recognizable character with just enough humor, never becoming so broad as to draw attention away from the larger play. John Lavelle has the meaty role of Bottom, the one used by Oberon to embarrass Titania. Lavelle gives him the ego that is required but also a humanity that is also necessary.
In the last part of the play, the mechanicals put on their play of Pyramus and Thisbe that bears a resemblance to Romeo and Juliet. Sometimes this is drawn out too long or is played too broadly. This scene which can seem to go endlessly has been directed to perfection by Tresnjak. I can’t remember seeing it done any better in any of the many productions I’ve attended.
Shakespeare gave us some lines that reinforce the point of the play –“the course of true love never did run smooth” and Puck’s line “what fools these mortals be.”
Yes, but in this production the mortals may be fools, but they are also delightful.
For tickets visit hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151. Hartford Stage is at 50 Church Street, Hartford.
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