Theater Review: Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Dream of a Midsummer Night

Mortals would be foolish to miss the ASP’s version of Shakespeare’s Dream.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. Directed by Patrick Swanson. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at the Multicultural Arts Center. Cambridge, MA, through June 4.

Photo: Nile Scott Shots

Paula Plum (Titania) and Steven Barkhimer (Bottom) in the ASP’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo: Nile Scott Shots

By Ian Thal

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play that needs little introduction – it’s a middle school favorite, community theater standard, and perennial choice for outdoor spectacles large and small.

But, because the play is so often presented as light entertainment, it easy to forget that the script contains just as much nuance as Shakespeare’s other works – something that the fine Patrick Swanson-helmed production keeps well in mind. Those who proclaim Midsummer to be their favorite of the Bard’s plays because of youthful memories of fairy tale fun and games may find themselves discovering something new.

The auditorium, a former courtroom, is the optimum sized space for balancing subtlety and spectacle. Most of Eric Levenson’s set is a simple white box flanked by Corinthian columns, which smack of a prior century’s aesthetics. When Deb Sullivan illuminates this space with a warm white light, the performers are nimbly spotlit: every physical gesture, every facial movement, can be clearly seen.

Paula Plum’s Titania carries herself with a regal whimsy – commanding authority both when dealing with her estranged king and when pursuing the ass that is her fancy. Yet she is still down-to-earth enough to be amused that magic can make even an immortal monarch as much a fool as any mortal. In contrast, her Hippolyta silently expresses her rage at the patriarchal laws Theseus is sworn to enforce – a rage that Shakespeare neglected to write for the Amazon’s warrior queen when her betrothed assents to Egeus’ (Steven Barkhimer) demand to force Hermia (Elle Borders) to marry Demetrius (Mac Young.) This production doesn’t let us forget that an exploration of irrational desires can also be political.

Likewise, when the rude mechanicals busy themselves by discussing a prologue to Thisbe and Pyramus, there are interesting social resonances: Could they be young progressives overly concerned with placing trigger warnings on ‘dangerous’ parts of pop culture and college curricula while they overlook more pressing issues: economic injustice, human rights violations, or the rise of political extremism?

Equiano Mosieri also makes some fascinaing choices in the dual role of Theseus and Oberon. His Duke of Athens is largely bound by his public role; but his King of Fairies embodies dichotomies. Magical words are spoken in a Cockney accent; and he is possessed with a melancholia over what his spells have wrought, whether his schemes have gone right or wrong. Only reconciliation with his Queen can cheer his supernatural heart.

Sarah Newhouse is always a joy when she plays the wiseacre, and her Puck is wonderfully manic, whether the actress is doing pratfalls, puffing on a joint, or leaping into Oberon’s arms.

Steven Barkhimer is another of our city’s great theatrical clowns. As the transformed Nick Bottom he dons the red nose and outsized shoes of the circus. But it is in the staging of of the Tedious Brief Scene of Young Pyramus and His Love Thisbe we are treated to a virtuoso comic performance – from the broad slapstick of the ill-fated lover to how every twitching facial muscle competes for the audience’s adoration.

Even with script’s young inamorati, the cast brings out greater nuance than one is accustomed to. In Athens, the erotic energy generated by Lysander (Jake Athyal) and Borders’ Hermia is tangible. Notably, Athyal plays Lysander’s unaffected love for Hermia in these opening scenes in a different timbre than his drug-induced infatuation for Helena (Monica Giordano) we see later. Borders finds the horror in heartbreak when Lysander’s affections are transformed. Young is a smugly petulant and cruel Demetrius, while Giordano evokes the masochism that’s so often a part of adolescent ideas of romantic love.

The double casting of the lovers as the mechanicals provides Barkhimer’s Bottom with a wonderful supporting cast – especially Giordano’s anxiety-ridden Snug the Joiner and Borders’ officious Peter Quince.

Thankfully, Elizabeth Rocha’s puppets – who play Mustardseed, Peaseblossom, and Cobweb – the trio of fairies in whose care Titania leaves Bottom, eschew many of the pop-culture clichés about fairies. Cobweb is rendered as giant hairy tarantula that nests on Bottom’s head. Rocha’s marionette designs for Peaseblossom and Mustardseed owe something to John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. However, the puppetry was also the source of a flawed performance: directors who incorporate puppetry must make sure that anyone manipulating a puppet on stage knows how to do so. Cobweb’s manipulator may have been inspired, but marionettes are are amongst the most difficult puppets to manipulate. In the performance I attended, Mustardseed’s strings became tangled – his arms were literally tied behind his back.

Jessica Primble’s costumes wonderfully designate the rank and realm of every character. Though the fairies sport dayGlo feathers and tulle, there’s an acknowledgement of the current schism in the fairyland — Oberon’s faction has begun to sport black leather as well, while Titania’s has taken to carrying nightsticks and sporting bowler hats like the droogs of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Oberon may be clad in leather pants and a motorcycle jacket, but the fanciful garb that represents his true status as the King of the Fairies can still be seen underneath. Primble’s gown for Titania  is gorgeous: from its colors (violet and indigo) to its feathers and cobwebs. The designer lets her whimsy loose with her costumes for the mechanicals in the play-within-the play as well.

David Reiffel’s score is largely built out of electric loops based on Rob Bethel’s contributions on cello and (occasional) percussion. The musician is perched on the former courtroom’s balcony (under an archaic astrological chart, a reminder that it is, in fact, Midsummer). The combination of acoustic and electronic sounds is theatrically acute: it embodies the porous boundary between natural world and the fairy realms in the woods surrounding Athens.

In this production, Swanson brilliantly plays around with Shakespeare’s theme that we are possessed by irrational passions, the puppet victims of our desires. The director is less skeptical of our passions, at least when they are erotic. We may want to domesticate our wayward sexual yearnings, but they must be celebrated as well. Fear is not a solution. Mortals would be foolish to miss this version of Shakespeare’s Dream.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report

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