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Like many of the best things in life, overindulgence, even with the classics, can lead to irritability. One could well be sated for life with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (probably the most frequently mounted of all Shakespeare comedies) after landmark productions by Max Reinhardt, Peter Brook and Peter Hall, the Benjamin Britten opera, the George Balanchine ballet, not to mention a classic Czech animated feature or a recent starry Hollywood version. That is to say, there had better be a compelling reason to tour any new version internationally.
The novelty here is the puppetry of Capetown’s Handspring Puppet Company, which achieved renown for its equine work on War Horse. Here they provide hand-brandished masks for Titania (Saskia Portway) and Oberon (David Ricardo-Pearce), titanic representations of the Faerie royalty for the climax, and a rudely mechanical piecemeal Puck, manipulated and voiced by three actors (Salkat Ahamed, Fionn Gill and Lucy Tuck). Their creations are invariably impressive in conception and execution, although they add paltry little magic, vision or suggestiveness to the text, drama or comedy. The feeble evisceration of Puck is particularly regrettable, and one can tell the stagers recognize that loss by excising his celebrated curtain speech.
Otherwise, this is essentially journeyman provincial Shakespeare of a high order of competence, the product of the Bristol Old Vic, the oldest continually running theater in Blighty, and one-time proving ground for such as Peter O’Toole, Dorothy Tutin and John Neville. There is no star acting here, only that of a dedicated and proficient troupe, with abstract design in the approved modern manner and delivery of the poetry as close to vernacular dialogue as possible at centuries’ remove. Although the expressive intricacy of Shakespeare’s construction is clearly conveyed, there isn’t much evident lyricism.
Refreshingly, this rough-hewn style causes this production to succeed most significantly where most others with more elevated and interesting ambitions fail: namely, the low comedy of the romantic misunderstandings and the usually flop-sweaty tomfoolery of the tradesmen’s staging of the Tedious Tragedy of Pyramus & Thisbe. These actors have slapstick chops they are unafraid to milk and mug to the point of reviving the corpse of ancient hijinks. When Bottom (Miltos Yerolemou) awakens transformed he is no half-assed ass, but brandishes a midsummer’s full-moon buttocks with donkey ears wiggling on his feet.
Similarly, when the mismatched affections of the two pairs of young lovers who have fled into the forest pursuing one another are scrambled yet again by faerie enchantment, the romantic quarrels arising out of these besotted ardors may be classically familiar yet genuinely hilarious in the furious rhetoric of Elizabeth invective, abetted by the deft Helena of Naomi Cranston and the daft Hermia of Akiya Henry, both accomplished comediennes ready-made for any modern writers capable of giving them comparable sturdy material.
These best parts of the show unabashedly play directly to the Groundlings, and the opening night audience was undeniably in stitches, which doesn’t invariably happen even in better and more inventive renditions of the warhorse.
Venue: The Broad Stage, Santa Monica (runs through April 19)
Cast: Miltos Yerolemou, Naomi Cranston, Akiya Henry, David Ricardo-Pearce, Alex Felton, Kyle Lima, Saskia Portway, Salkat Ahamed, Colin Michael Carmichael, Fionn Gill, Christopher Keegan, Lucy Tuck
Director: Tom Morris
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Puppet Design, Fabrication & Direction: Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting designer: Philip Gladwell
Music: Dave Price
Sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Producer: Catherine Morgenstern
Executive Producer: Emma Stenning
A Bristol Old Vic Production in Association with Handspring Puppet Company, co-commissioned by Spoleto Festival USA
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