A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
A Midsummer Night's Dream
By Chesley Plemmons
Simotes has added another layer of evocative ambiance by setting this "Midsummer" in the Jazz Age, a period nearly equidistant from World War I and its successor. People were in a festive, "carpe diem" mood – eager to forget the past while slightly nervous about the future. What better time or place for an excursion into a land of magic in the name of righting loves' wrongs.
Travis George has provided an atmospheric set embracing the New Orleans "look." Giant limbs draped with Spanish moss hang over the playing area framed by ornate iron panels that suggest the French Quarter.
Costumes by Deborah A. Brothers catch the free wheeling, nearly unhinged aura of Bourbon Street as well as the tinsel world of fairyland. Five members of the cast, led by Alexander Sovronsky, do double duty as a Dixie-land band playing a score that Sovronsky has composed based on period jazz works. They get your feet tapping.
The premise of the play is fairly familiar stuff if you're a Bard fan: circumstance and custom separate two young couples in love. Hermia (Kelly Galvin) is in love with Lysander (David Joseph), but her father (here her mother), Egeus (Annette Miller) insists she marry Demetrius (Colby Lewis) who - in turn, is loved by Helena (Cloteal L. Horne). Their romantic angst has perhaps trickled down from the estranged King and Queen of the fairies Oberon (Roco Sisto) and Titania (Merritt Janson) who are feuding over a changeling boy.
As in most of Shakespeare's romantic comedies there's a plethora of complications. Here four plots co-exist: the lover's quandary; two quarreling sets of royals (easy to comprehend for both are played by the same two actors) and the adventures of a ragged band of "rude mechanicals" yearning to become actors.
Led by Bottom (Johnny Lee Davenport) an unabashed egotist, these tradesmen go into the forest (bayou?) to secretly rehearse. It's the same sanctuary that welcomes the four young lovers and it is there with the help of magic that all is resolved.
The sequence where Bottom is transformed into an ass and becomes romantically entwined with an equally drugged Titania; and the hapless performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe" remain two of Shakespeare's sublime comic moments and the actors here plunge in with relish. Davenport is a roaringly funny attention seeking Bottom and the young actors are most adept at convincing us of their passions – allowed and unrequited. Coteal Horne is Helena and she reminded me of a young Lena Horne (same last name too!)
Last but certainly not least is Puck, the impish fairy attending Oberon's wishes. Played by Michael F. Toomey, his is a characterization closer to the rough and not-so-nice guy that Puck evolved from in other works before Shakespeare. Dressed like a battered member of Robin Hood's bandit gang or someone from the movie "The Road Warrior," this is one of the weirdest Pucks I've seen in a long time. Howling, from time to time, like a wolf, he is truly a Puck's-Bad-Boy.
The audience ate up his antics as well as most of the sometimes frantic action. Entrances and exits were never less than at warp speed and actors had to beware potholes (I mean trap doors!), falling trees and the occasional strong arm. At times, I longed for more comic clarity than comic chaos.
Well laid, well played and chock full of sight gags and visual treats this will please even the most traditional Shakespeare devotee.
Simotes and his crew nailed the New Orleans connection with only one minor omission. I hoped (vainly) that at the end the cast would throw chinzy necklaces into the audience like the riders on Mardi Gras floats toss to the mob. I guess you can't have everything.
Historical note: In 1978, A Midsummer Night's Dream was the first play performed by Shakespeare & Company when director Simotes played the role of Puck.. It was also the last on stage when the company left its original home, The Mount— For Curtainup Editor Elyse Sommer's review of that production click here