Review: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at HART brings the laughs
February is the ideal time to open William Shakespeare's classic comedy, "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
A show with a dose of magic helping four couples find love, while a fifth couple dies tragically. But don't worry, the couple happily dies within the bounds of an absurdly comic play-within-a-play.
The decision by directors Tyson Redifer and Chris White to present a story set in ancient Athens with a pervasive steampunk motif was risky but works surprisingly well. Rather than interfering the coherence of the play, the set design, costumes, lighting and sound serve to clarify elements of the absurdly convoluted story.
Well, start with the impending marriage of Duke Theseus of Athens to Hippolyta, former queen of the Amazons. Add in Egeus and his disobedient daughter, Hermia, who is determined to marry Lysander but has been promised to Demetrius.
There's the frustrated Helena, who is Hermia's best friend and madly in love with Demetrius, who only has eyes for Hermia. For reasons that really don't jell completely, Helena attempts to curry favor with Demetrius by revealing to him that Hermia and Lysander plan to meet in the forest and run off together.
Of course, the forest is filled with magical fairies and their own drama. In particular, the estrangement between Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, over Titania's refusal to cede her ward, and Indian changeling, to Oberon as his special henchman.
Oberon conspires with the spritely Puck to use a potion that will cause Titania to fall in love with the first thing she sees, which turns out to be Nick Bottom, a foolish actor who has been given (by Puck, naturally) the head of a donkey.
Using the same potion, Puck mistakenly causes Lysander to fall in love with Helena, who thinks he is mocking her with his protestations of love.
Was that enough?
I've barely touched on the Mechanicals, a troupe of traveling actors who hope to perform at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Things generally work out in Shakespeare's comedies, and this one is no exception. By Act 5, we are not only granted three weddings and a reconciliation, but the Mechanicals get to put on their own play.
Just mentioning Act 5 should give a clue that this is a long show — two hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission. The pacing is tight, so the show doesn't drag, and the simplicity of the set plus the revolving center work well to eliminate lengthy scene changes.
In fact, my biggest problem with the show is just the opposite — some of the cast, seemingly unfamiliar with the dialogue and rhythms of Shakespeare's work, spit out their carefully memorized lines much too fast, making it tough to understand the words or catch much of the author's Elizabethan wit.
It's not universal -- several of the actors, including but not limited to Sarah Nolte, Sam Roberts, Kira Smolev, Francis Kohler and Kelsey Ion know exactly what they are doing and how to do it, and these skilled performers really help to anchor the cast and keep the audience in the loop.
Humor plays a huge role in keeping the audience engaged, and there are some fine moments. Expect a massive dose of physical comedy in the forest scenes, especially between Kohler (Lysander), Ion (Helena), Roberts (Demetrius), and Emma Heesacker (Hermia).
The show ends with some huge laughs for Lucas Ray (Francis Flute) — he's not terribly memorable in earlier scenes, but when he goes in drag as the love-stricken Thisbe he is genuinely hilarious. Scenes between Smolev (Titania) and Frank Robertson (Nick Bottom) work well, even when masked Robertson sells his role as a genuine donkey.
As for sound design, the work of Jeremy Ollis, Mike Stafford and Leslie Inmon enhances the show. The projection of prerecorded voices is smooth and well handled in the tech booth, as is the synchronization of light and sound in several key scenes.
And don't forget about the costuming by Kira Smolev, Karen Schlecht and Mary Gow. The contrast between colorfully lighted winged fairies and steampunk Athenians helps to cleanly distinguish between the real world of Athens and the magical realm of the fairies.
Robinson's mask (by Phyllis Lang) also provides an interesting bridge between the two. Smolev and Mark Putnam (Oberon) make full use of their magnificent capes, which clearly mark them as being well above the run-of-the-mill fairies, and Sarah Felder is quite memorable in the eye-catching attire that sets her apart as the mischievous Puck.
In sum, the show is lively and entertaining, but suffers from some uneven performances, not unusual in community theater. Redifer and White's vision plays out reasonably well, and they do a respectable job of incorporating the unusual steampunk and electric elements into the show.
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