Story: Theseus, Duke of Athens, is betrothed to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. They plan a festive wedding celebration, but first Theseus is asked to rule on a demand by nobleman Egeus. The latter says that Athenian law mandates that his daughter Hermia be compelled to marry Demetrius (her father’s choice for a son-in-law), rather than the man she actually loves, Lysander. Simultaneously, a band of laborers led by Peter Quince prepares to perform a ‘comedy and tragedy’ about Pyramus and Thisbe as part of the royal couple’s reception entertainment.
In the woods outside Athens, Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, oversee the activities of their minions, including Puck, Oberon’s loyal servant. Oberon instructs Puck to sprinkle magic dust on the sleeping eyelids of Demetrius so that he falls in love with Helena, who loves him, but Puck first mistakenly approaches Lysander instead. Oberon also orders Puck to sprinkle dust on Titania and to change the laborer Bottom into a donkey who infatuates Titania. Lysander and Demetrius both pursue Helena, Hermia is puzzled by Lysander’s sudden lack of interest in her, Bottom is changed back to normal and the troupe of tradesmen perform their under-rehearsed play for the newly married Theseus and Hippolyta.
Highlights: Long one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is transformed by director Chris Anthony from ancient Athens to contemporary Greece, accentuated by the funky disco decade of the 1970s. Sound designer Robin Weatherall prepares the audience for this setting with a wide selection of funk pop from the era, everything from the theme from Sanford & Son to a tune by The Supremes (and a classical motif or two as well), and choreographer Heather Beal gets the cast in the groove with appropriate dance moves stylishly performed by the troupe.
Anthony’s version features a magnificent performance by Matthew Galbreath as the overly ambitious Bottom and a riotously funny turn by Ryan Cunningham as Bottom’s comrade, Flute. Their play-within-a-play as the tragic lovers Pyramus and Thisbe salvages Anthony’s otherwise forgettable and often wearying interpretation with a side-splitting finale that sends the audience home with tears of laughter and smiles aplenty.
Other Info: Two years ago, Anthony’s interpretation of Romeo & Juliet at The Black Rep, where she moved the action to Venice, Illinois, was the best production of the Bard’s tragedy that I can recall seeing. This time around, though, her vision doesn’t seem to be nearly as acute. Although the setting is supposed to be Athens in the 1970s, it never really feels that way, even though the flamboyant and garish costumes designed by Sarita Fellows make a convincing argument. Robert van Dillen’s props, including the use of mini-lawn chairs for the court performance, help as well, particularly since Dunsi Dai’s set sparingly utilizes a jungle gym surrounded by overhanging shredded curtains to provide an ethereal sylvan effect. Lighting designer William H. Grant III makes judicious use of illumination to shade the differences between the city and the forest.
Galbreath and Cunningham breathe much-needed life into the often stodgy and sluggish pace of the two-act effort that is 15 minutes short of three hours. At least for me, the travails of the lovers and the Elizabethan humor about their escapades in the fairy-enchanted woods grow wearisome long before the work’s conclusion.
Other questionable decisions include Patrese McClain, a fine actress, spirited but seemingly miscast as the frustrated Helena and Chad Morris, who has done good work in other local productions, playing a vamped-up ‘fairy’ that falls with a thud rather than float like the pixie dust it references. Morris also effectively conveys the petulance of Egeus.
Robert Mitchell brings his authority and command of the Shakespearean language to the fore as both Theseus and Oberon and is well matched by Monica Parks as the imperial Hippolyta and lusty Titania. Daniel Hodges is OK as Philostrate and rousingly amusing as the busy Puck. Amy Loui is entertaining as the aspiring impresario Peter Quince, assisted by Diamond Emelda Skinner as her cohort Snug and a stuttering lion in their play, Candice Jeanine as worker Snout and the play’s ‘wall’ character and Phillip Dixon as Starveling and Quince’s ‘moonshine’ role.
Courtney Brown, Chauncy Thomas and Anthony Peeples join McClain as the quartet of young lovers, namely Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena, respectively. Shakespeare’s works are ever evolving in their interpretation by talented artists who see his plots resonating regardless of time and place. Thus, this rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Anthony, who is associate artistic director of LA Shakespeare and a St. Louis native daughter, may appeal to most audiences. It just didn’t register with me.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Group: The Black Rep
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square Dates: February 23, 24, 25, 26, March 1, 2, 3, 4
Tickets: From $20 to $47; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein