It's hard to get enthusiastic about another production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I've seen so many oafishly boring and over-the-top Bottoms; puppet-like Hermias and Helenas; Demetriuses and Lysanders so generic you can't tell them apart; annoying Pucks. And just what in hell is a director supposed to do with the fairies? How do Oberon and Titania communicate their supernatural unreality while standing before us in the flesh? Do you get children to play Titania's retinue? Dancers? Represent these beings with flickering lights, as the Colorado Shakespeare Festival once did rather successfully? Usually by the time the menials are staging their lumpily inept version of the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, I'm surreptitiously poking in my purse for car keys and wondering just why Shakespeare wanted this dopey piece of stagecraft to close out the action.
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And yet I couldn't have been more charmed and delighted by Kent Thompson's production, which not only avoids every pitfall, but makes Dream fresh and new again. Themes beyond the obvious begin to emerge. Yes, the play tells you that love is dreamlike and illogical, but I hadn't thought much before about the different kinds of love it depicts. Take the power balance between Theseus and the conquered Hippolyta, for instance. Thompson doesn't handle it in an obvious Taming of the Shrew sort of way, or make it sadistic or a purely formal partnering. Rather, there's a continual but gentle testing on both sides. Oberon and Titania can squabble all they like, but you can tell how absolutely married they are. At the same time, when they fall out — in part because of their supernatural powers, in part because this is how it feels to all of us when love is lost — the results roil the natural world, bringing flood, disease and famine. Of course, the young lovers are just as deluded and silly as you'd expect, but having won the fairies' blessing, they're going to be okay.
From top to bottom, this is a superb cast. I've never before seen a Theseus as impressively kindly and powerful as that of Keith Hamilton Cobb, and he's well matched by Tamara Hoffman's Hippolyta. It's fitting that Oberon and Titania are played by mature actors, and both John Hutton and Kathleen McCall perfectly walk the tightrope between ethereal and earthy, with McCall becoming positively lewd once she's fallen for the donkey-headed Bottom. Drew Cortese and Leigh Nichols Miller are charming as Demetrius and Lysander, respectively, Caitlin Wise is a cute little clown as Hermia, and Allison Pistorius's Helena is a revelation — beautiful and plain, goony and sweet. All four are insanely slapsticky, but also real people with real feelings. Lawrence Hecht makes the irrepressible Bottom as sympathetic as he is funny, and I loved the way he played with the little fairies, after initially grossing them out. These fairies are played by children so graceful and natural that they're entirely convincing, and Michael Wartella is such a sprightly leaper that when his Puck says he can put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes, you believe him. Mandy Masden delights in the tiny, usually forgettable role of First Fairy. The menials, led by Sam Gregory's Quince, are all so good that I found myself laughing whenever they entered. All of these actors understand the text to their bones, which means they can cut up all over the place while still doing justice to the words' meaning and the play's transcendent poetry.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 26. Stage Theatre. Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
John Iacovelli's set — with its white pillars, square of green and blue patch of water, and the foliage-shadowed trellises at the side — reminded me of the design of traditional English gardens, the way manicured lawns and flower beds give way to tangles of untamed greenery as nature converges on civilization. This set, Bill Black's costumes, Don Darnutzer's lighting and Gregg Coffin's music are not only exquisite in themselves, they add nuance and clarity, so that I saw the shape and structure of Dream as I never quite had before and finally understood just why Shakespeare might want to have ended the human part of things with the menials' heartfelt performance.