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A CurtainUp Review
A Midsummer Night's Dream

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended.
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
l-r: Jason O'Connell, Joey Parsons, Mark Bedard, Nance Williamson, and Sean McNall.
I'm a bit loath to admit this about any play written by Shakespeare, but I've never been a particularly big fan of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Productions typically emphasize slapstick comedy, which isn't my favorite style to begin with. And even more troubling, unlike a comedy like Twelfth Night, where the potential for mean-spiritedness is moderated by Shakespeare's awareness of it (in the treatment of Malvolio, for example), much of the ill treatment of the various figures in Midsummer is often played up for laughs, higher classes (or higher fairies!) relentlessly mocking the idiotic bumbling of their lessers. Yet my general admiration for Shakespeare and the Pearl Theatre's professionalism convinced me to give their take on A Midsummer Night's Dream, jointly produced with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, a try. I'm glad I did. This is justifiably a controversial production, and it won't be for everyone. But it's creative, gutsy, and exceedingly well-acted, and its unapologetic approach to the play's fundamental absurdity breathes new life into the work.

From the very beginning where three different versions of the opening scene are performed in quick and somewhat confusing succession, it's apparent that this isn't an ordinary approach to the story of four Athenian lovers (some in love with the wrong people) and the fairies who are fascinated by (and often enjoy manipulating) them. The costumes are simple and unchanging, sneakers and track suits with one or two stripes of neon tape. There are no props at all. The stage itself is just a slightly recessed floor of soft dirt, upon which people fall or roll at various moments in the play. And the lighting, while often effective (particularly in a scene towards the end, when Puck is leading the lovers on a wild chase through the forest), is generally relentlessly simple. It falls upon the actors to do the bulk of the imaginative work.

It is a lot of work, because a cast of five somehow has to represent ten fairly significant characters and a host of minor ones, and this puts an enormous amount of pressure on all involved. They generally succeed, and their whole-hearted embrace of the experience is a big reason why; particularly Jason O'Connell, whose extraordinary flexibility and gifts for physical acting are repeatedly put to the test in the roles of Bottom and Puck. There is a soft menace to his performance in this latter role which is exactly right: these aren't Disney fairies, after all, but fairies of old, not altogether enamored of human frailty and sometimes driven closer to the edge of malice than would seem comfortable.

It's that discomfort which director Eric Tucker is anxious to push throughout the play, channeling Peter Brook through a strong component of earthly sexuality, and highlighting tension through striking physical staging, bodies compressed and twisted against each other in tune with their internal agonies. And in a way, the production's minimalism forces the audience to attend to the fundamental absurdity (and discomfort) of the play. This can certainly lead to confusion and doesn't make this a beginner's Midsummer. But it works far better than most productions I've seen, largely because it embraces the uncertainties of the play rather than covering them with slapstick and silliness.

The news isn't all good, as CurtainUp's Chesley Plemmons noted in his review of the production at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare estival earlier this year. The cast is so small that at times the doublings (and triplings) just don't work; a few more actors would have helped considerably. And there are interesting threads begun —like the neon lighting— which never get picked up upon again. It's as if they were ideas which the director forgot to edit out later.

Moreover, having one, five, or ten great ideas doesn't obligate you to have a hundred of them. There are so many moving parts that things are bound to slip here and there— and they do, with some odd pacing in spots, some strange tonal choices, and other inconsistencies which mar the production. The edginess of the show for a rather conservative venue like the Pearl, did result in some seats vacated at intermission . But those who did leave probably weren't going to be a part of the Pearl's future audience anyway.

We've seen A Midsummer Night's Dream a thousand different times, almost always with the same approach and emphasizing the same things. Despite its issues, I found this to be the most engaging and intriguing performance of the play I've seen, and I suspect I won't be alone. This isn't entry-level Shakespeare, but it's good, challenging work from a highly regarded company and director, and if you like to see the work of the Bard pushed without being mangled, this production is well worth your while.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Eric Tucker
Cast: Mark Bedard, Sean McNall, Jason O'Connell, Joey Parsons, Nance Williamson
Scenic Design: John McDermott
Costume Design: Jessica Wegener Shay
Lighting Design: Eric Southern
Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel
Choreographer: Birgitta Victorson
Running time: Two hours, forty-five minutes with a ten minute intermission
The Pearl Theatre, 555 West 42nd St., (212) 563-9261
From 9/8/2015 to 11/1/2015, opening 9/20/15
Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday @ 7 p.m., Friday-Saturday @ 8 p.m., Wednesday, Saturday-Sunday @ 2 p.m.
Tickets: $65 general admission, $20 student rush, $20 Thursday rush
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on September 16th preview performance
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