The Colorado Shakespeare Festival has been so thuddingly mediocre for so many years that I approached the opening night of A Midsummer Night's Dream filled with skepticism. And nothing I heard at the gala preceding the performance — as new artistic director Philip C. Sneed pontificated on the history of the festival, his debt to his predecessors, his plans for the future, his gratitude to both donors and festival staff — did anything to dissipate my cynicism. But later, as I sat on one of the new, more comfortable seats in the Mary Rippon Theatre, something unexpected happened: I found myself enchanted.
And enchantment is the point of this play. Dream is framed by a wedding ceremony between Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his warrior queen, Hippolyta. We watch a group of working stiffs — or, as Shakespeare has it, rude mechanicals — rehearse a celebratory play for the couple, urged on by the irrepressible Nick Bottom. Four young people disappear into the forest: Hermia and Lysander, who have been forbidden to marry by Hermia's father; Helena, trundling after Lysander, whom she loves; and Demetrius, Hermia's spurned suitor. The forest is ruled by the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, who happen to be feuding. Within this magical, oneiric place, realities dissolve, and the lovers are bamboozled by Oberon and Puck, his trickster fairy, into losing track of their original alliances and switching partners again and again. Meanwhile, Oberon has arranged for Titania to fall in love with Bottom. Not only that, but he's replaced Bottom's head with that of an ass.
The interrelated themes are that love is crazy and lovers blind, that we all live in a world of illusion, and that theater itself mirrors this shifting, upside-down world. A Midsummer Night's Dream simultaneously makes magic and exposes the crude devices by which it does so — and Shakespeare's poetry, imagination and humor make these crude devices magical, too. The wonderful thing is that director Gavin Cameron-Webb gets this. His set, a stage within the Mary Rippon stage, is simple, elegant and workable. We know when we're in the forest because at those moments, Puck turns the stage lights green, and a large flower that looks like an illustration from a Victorian fairy book opens above us, framed by pennants that flutter in the actual evening breeze. The play's fairies are always problematic; in most productions, they're acted by ballet dancers or distractingly skittering children. But Cameron-Webb unclutters his stage by using darting green lights.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 18, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
It's wonderful to see Sarah Fallon — whose Titania came close to redeeming the CSF's lackluster 2002 rendition of Dream — back as Helena. Speaking with precision and moving with a muted puppet jerkiness, she brings a real but never over-the-top humor to the role. She's nicely matched by Alexandra Lewis's brattily childlike but also sensual Hermia. The moment that Hermia notices one of the mechanical performers holding her stuffed dog, then snatches it from him and cuddles it to her heart, is out-and-out adorable. (This production emphasizes the act of watching — and hence reaffirms its own theatricality — at several points. The aristocrats watch the mechanicals' play with great good humor; Oberon and Puck sit on a forest log and stuff themselves with popcorn while observing the antics of the lovers.) Demetrius and Lysander are well-played by Josh Robinson and Robert Tobin as matching young dandies. Kyle Haden is a dignified Theseus and an interesting Oberon, and I like Karen Slack's odd and impish Titania and the way she communicates Hippolyta's feisty independence from Theseus.
It was a stroke of inspiration on Cameron-Webb's part to turn Peter Quince, the leader of the mechanicals, into Petra. Maria-Christina Oliveras plays the role with bursting restraint and bustling precision. She wants to be an efficient manager, but she's not quite smart enough — and anyway, the mechanicals are too irrepressibly anarchic. This results in a constant and delicious dance between order and chaos, and Quince's gender adds a frisson of sexuality to the scenes. Stephen Weitz fills the stage whenever he appears as Bottom; he's not only unrestrainedly funny, but also a real person with feelings and thoughts of his own. And John Plump is the best Puck I remember seeing.
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The acting here is the most consistent I've seen at CSF, primarily because the actors own the words they speak. They don't use fake English accents. They don't pound away at the humor and exaggerate the sentiment, as so many Shakespearean actors do. As a result, you hear the lines clearly. And once that happens, any Shakespeare production is halfway home — particularly this one, with its melting poetry. Though I do have to wonder at some of Cameron-Webb's cuts, particularly the passage about "the lunatic, the lover and the poet" that not only encapsulates the meaning of the play, but is deliriously beautiful and evocative in itself.
There are other weaknesses. While I like the idea of using dance and the mechanicals' long minutes of bouncing mayhem are hilarious, most of the dance sequences need work. Sometimes a performance gets hammy. And the buffoonery can be hackneyed: Hermia leaping onto Demetrius's back to stop him from leaving; Quince dangling midair from a wooden frame; far too many blows to the gentlemen's groins; a shot fired into the air that brings a dead bird thudding to the ground.
Still, this is the best evening I've had at the Shakespeare festival in many years.