Warm your midwinter nights

BY LYNN LEE

A Midsummer Night’s Dream really flies. Or at least the fairies do. Their aerial acrobatics are the standout feature of the A.R.T.’s workmanlike production of the most enchanted (and enchanting) comedy old Will ever wrote.

Engineered by an intricate arrangement of pulleys and ropes, choreographed by director Martha Clarke, and performed by real dancers, the stage flight adds the one elaborate touch to otherwise strikingly spare staging. However, this is a play that needs little in the way of external representation. Woods, flowers, fairies, spotted snakes, and above all, magic, are all there already in the endlessly mutable ebb and flow of the language.

Which means everything depends on the actors’ delivery, and for the most part, this cast delivers. Presiding over the romantic chaos and restoring order at the end, are the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, played by A.R.T. veterans John Campion and Karen McDonald. The same actors also play Theseus, Duke of Athens, and his bride-to-be, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. The two pairings are clearly meant to be reflections of each other, and of the rigidly patriarchal system that underlies the play’s madcap romantic convolutions.

Perhaps for this very reason, Campion never strikes anything but a jarring note: as Oberon, he veers between psychotic rage and nasty voyeurism, while as Theseus he’s at once colder and creepier – the aged conqueror who has no qualms about “conquering” the bride he’s already won by violence. Nothing wrong with this interpretation, except Campion’s portrayal feels a tad forced. McDonald’s Hippolyta, meanwhile, glowers magnificently but remains literally mute: What little dialogue Shakespeare gave her has deliberately been deleted or transferred to another character, no doubt to emphasize her subjugated status. As Titania, she puts up a more vocal and spirited resistance, yet even she in the end is ruthlessly cut down to size.

Softening the harsh battle lines drawn by the feuding king and queen are the quartet of quarreling but interchangeable lovers – Hermia (Michi Barall) and Lysander (Tug Coker), Helena (Katharine Powell) and Demetrius (Daniel Talbott). As characters who doff and don loves and loyalties at the drop of a hat (or a flower), these young actors have the good sense not to take themselves too seriously. Instead, they play up the absurdity of their situation to good effect – especially Powell as the half-comic, half-pathetic lovelorn Helena.

But the plum roles of Midsummer, of course, belong to Puck (Jesse Perez), Oberon’s right-hand man, and Bottom (Thomas Derrah), the weaver with thespian pretensions and asinine propensities. Perez does well as Puck, playing that shrewd and knavish sprite as a rather earthy trickster and looking like a cross between Beetlejuice and The Crow. Derrah, as Bottom, hams it up with gusto – perhaps a bit too much. He’s actually much funnier with the ass’s head on than off, though it’s impossible to keep a straight face when he prances onstage as the gallant lover Pyramus.

Still, that brings on my last quibble, regarding the staging of the play within the play. “Pyramus and Thisbe,” quite possibly the most gut-bustingly hilarious piece of theatrics ever written by man, always brings down the house, and this one is no exception: Derrah et al. play it Monty Python style, turning the tortured tragedy into predominantly physical comedy, a frenetic display of cosmic silliness, and drawing appreciative roars from the audience.

Yet I’ve always pictured Bottom and his fellow rustics playing it absolutely straight, their quaint gravity and earnestness accentuating the sublime ridiculousness of their script. Jeremy Geidt, another A.R.T. member of longstanding, comes closest to this approach. More than once I found my eye riveting from Bottom’s manic antics to Geidt’s quavering Snug the joiner – or Remo Airaldi’s Flute, blissfully oblivious to his own ludicrousness.

It says something, too, that the punning comments of “Pyramus”‘s Athenian audience – one of the best aspects of that scene – were lost amid the sweep of slapstick and Bottom’s stage-hogging, and, ironically, the uproar of the A.R.T.’s audience. Here again, A Midsummer Night’s Dream needs little help from external staging or sources to work its magic. With this play, perhaps more than with any other by Shakespeare, perhaps the best approach is simply to let the words flow – over hill, over dale.

A Midsummer Night’s DreamAmerican Repertory TheatreThrough Feb. 28

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