Shakespeare Theatre Company at Sidney Harmon Hall to Dec. 30
All the stage is a stage in Ethan McSweeny’s diverting A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which confines Shakespeare’s sprite-infested comedy to a literal theater—the Athenian court situated in front of a proscenium arch, the fairy-filled forest behind it. It’s a conceit that seems to promise sophisticated theatrical legerdemain, but while there’s a bit on display, what with fairies popping out of trap doors and swinging from chandeliers, true magic resides mostly in the antics of the clueless “rude mechanicals” who inhabit both realms.
Grant this a certain logic as those bumpkins believe fervently in the transformative power of theater—particularly Bruce Dow’s campy, Nathan Lane-esque Bottom, and David Graham Jones’ enthusiastically cross-dressing Flute, whose job is to find “tragical mirth” in their “tedious brief” scene of Pyramus & Thisbe. Whether keeping the whimsy stagebound helps the rest of the evening—Puck’s potions, the machinations of contentious royals, confusion among mismatched lovers—is harder to divine.
McSweeny has a lot of notions about how individual moments in this familiar romp through enchanted woods might be made to speak afresh. He’s given one character a fondness for Broadway showtunes, put the Duke of Athens in a crisp 1940s-era military uniform for poetic remarks that he and his bride-to-be read flatly into a microphone from cue-cards, and conceived the four young lovers as midcentury types—bobbysoxer, folksinger, preppie, and incipient businesswoman. That none of these notions has a real payoff doesn’t seem to bother him, and perhaps needn’t matter to audiences in an evening devoted to dreams and the imagination.
Still, questions abound: Why, for instance, has designer Lee Savage outfitted the stage with a decaying, dilapidated arch surrounded by construction debris? Is this a comment on theater as a tired art form? On the state of modern Greek finances? Or does it just provide Adam Green’s prankish Puck with some handy dropcloths, water, and plaster when he’s tricking the mortals into a bit of mud-wrestling. And what about the segregated seating for the wedding revels—black couple banished to the balcony while their white counterparts sit downstairs? Is that a choice reflecting ’40s racial attitudes, or merely an accident of casting?
Of course, the mechanicals wouldn’t understand questions like that, so when the others are done with the romance and poetry and they take over toward the end with their amateur theatricals, the evening is finally liberated from its central conceit. Dow’s Bottom, who was decent fun as an ass, can now be a riot as a ham, larding actorly overkill into his every gesture, and Jones can take the instruction to “rehearse most obscenely” to heart and deliver Thisbe’s lines “my lips have kissed thy stones” and “I kiss the wall’s hole” in a manner that would prompt blushes on Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
The laughs pile up, the evening perks up, and what’s gone before fades away. Fitting, perhaps: As with many a dream, what you’ll remember best of Shakespeare Theatre’s Dream is the very end.