Theater Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Theatricum Botanicum

Yesterday, Lisa and I checked out this summer’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Theatricum Botanicum. This is the stage company who produced the Coriolanus I saw last week.

And what we have here is a study in contrasts… Where Coriolanus–a tragedy–was heavy, Midsummer was light. Intense vs fun.

No “concepts,” just the play: stodgy Athens, a freeing woods, mechanicals, wood fairies. Stripped down, fast, accessible.

This production kicks off with sound and fury, a kind of fight between a man and a woman. At first, I thought, “Nice… starting off with a little Oberon/Titania prologue. Cool.” But I was wrong. This was Theseus and Hippolyta, and while it seemed to be a fight, it turned into more horseplay, and that playfulness counterbalanced the tendency of many productions to paint the relationship as dark and brooding, one of conquest and forced marriage.

We meet the four lovers. The men–for me–are always interchangeable (it was only yesterday that I finally came up with a mnemonic device for them: D – Demetrius = d!ck [for his treatment of Helena]… file that away with Helena being the tall lean one, like the “l” in her name, and Lear‘s Edmund > M = malicious vs Edgar > G = good). The women are the fun ones. We had an understudy for Hermia (sorry I didn’t catch the name), and she was good. Even better was Page de la Harpe as Helena. Full disclosure: I worked with Page in Othello earlier this year–I was papa Brabantio to her Desdemona. I might have been predisposed to liking her performance. But I was unprepared for her fantastic physical comedy (from teenage gawky to petulant overacting, from being the spaniel to becoming a dog whisperer) … needless to say, we didn’t see any of that in Othello, so it was a wonderful and welcome surprise.

Even more welcome were the rude mechanicals. Wow. This was an absolutely solid mini-ensemble. Standouts: Jackie Nicole’s Quince was very good, and the production made fun use of her gender for a couple of sight gags and character responses; and Nick Bottom, played by Christopher W. Jones, was just great–pompous, wonderfully overdone, a showy showboat to both the audience in the seats and the one to which he plays in the play… very nice.

The production was well-mounted by director Willow Geer who was able to add some nice touches I hadn’t seen before (Lysander becoming a spaniel to Helena; a chattering Puck [another standout in Christine Breihan], nice comic sound cues [later redoubled by Quince during “Pyramus and Thisbe”], and that opening fight).

Now, let me end this by saying Midsummer is a tough case. I mean, we’ve all seen it. Probably multiple times. How many different ways can you do the play? What can you do that’s new? What can you bring to the party? There’s a part of me that dreads going to a new production of this play.

And yet…

I pretty much always end up enjoying myself. So maybe I’m overthinking this play as a director and dramaturg.

Maybe I need to…

Yeah… If I do that, then I can also look forward to two more Midsummer productions this summer: Independent Shakespeare Company’s free version now running in Griffith Park, and Toil and Trouble Burlesque’s naughty and nice version that had its premiere last week and will run two more times before the end of summer.

As for this production from the Theatricum? Definitely see it. Especially if you have members of your group that are new to Shakespeare. Or you just want to have a good time. The show runs into September for general audiences.

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