There are pros and cons to the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Arvada Center. On the one hand, it's a delight to discover a new version of this classic, comic play, approached with energy, lightheartedness, originality, playfulness and a refreshing lack of veneration. Director Emily Van Fleet has imagined the action being presented in a deserted, weed-grown schoolyard by a small troupe of actors, each of whom plays multiple roles. What we’re seeing is a bleak future where most of the things we rely on and cherish — clean air and water, art and music, civilization itself — have vanished, and the actors intend to bring some sense of joy to a devastated world. To do so, they’re willing to improvise, play around with the script (making cuts, throwing in an occasional interpolation), switch roles and insert contemporary songs into Shakespeare’s timeless world. All of which they do with gusto.
And it works, creating a fast-flying evening, raising huge multi-hued clouds of audience laughter, bringing new brightness and color to a play many of us already know inside and out. The set and costumes are evocative, the actors lithe and lively. They spend a lot of time swinging on the monkey bars of this sad, child-deserted playground; some toss in an occasional pull-up — I’m guessing each actor had to prove the strength of his or her latissimus dorsi during the auditions. Annie Barbour amazes as quicksilver sprite Puck, her legs stretched bonelessly in a perfect split from a low bar up to a higher one, or putt-putting around on a scooter and emitting the occasional beep-beep. Her performance is like a running silver thread tying the action together.
On the other hand, I never felt the magic or music of this play about love’s mysteries — lovers’ delusions and their capacity for silliness and spite, along with moments of vision and tenderness. The comedy is played very broadly, and much of the acting is presentational, with the performers working for laughs. For the most part, they get them —and the script itself contains a fair amount of slapstick — but the lyrical parts of the story are passed by. Geoffrey Kent is a gift to any stage, and his Bottom is funny and inventive, but perhaps Bottom’s enactment of the death of Pyramus in the mechanicals’ farcical play within a play doesn’t have to go through quite as many iterations.
Crucial speeches lose their potency, including fairy queen Titania’s musings on the way her bitter quarrel with Oberon affects the physical world: “The chiding autumn, angry winter, change/ Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,/ By their increase, now knows not which is which:/ And this same progeny of evils comes/ From our debate, from our dissension;/ We are their parents and original.” This is a powerful statement of the destruction that human arrogance and blindness bring to nature, and is surely worth stressing in this time of global catastrophe and in a production presenting a devastated world. Yet the speech is truncated and what’s left gets lost.
The decision to have Oberon rather than Titania pranked into falling in love with the magically donkey-headed Bottom also comes at a cost — though it does amuse as a signal of gleeful feminist revenge. But it also means that we lose the potent metaphor of a love-blinded woman “enamored of an ass.”
Zachary Andrews makes Oberon both majestic and compassionate. In this version, Titania is transformed from a powerful monarch to a sulky spouse and, as such, she’s well-played by Kate Gleason. But what I found missing was love itself. We do see Theseus and Hippolyta (Andrews and Gleason again) quietly warming toward each other as she sees him show the compassion obviously lacking when he seized her as a trophy of war. But among the four lovers wandering in the woods, tricked by a magic flower into losing and re-finding their true partners, only Anastasia Davidson’s Helena displays genuine passion — both in love and in anger. (Davidson also creates the funniest Wall I've ever seen in a ludicrous play within a play.) As for Hermia (Madeline Chilese), Lysander (Jessica Austgen, as a hilariously swaggering young man) and Demetrius (Jake Mendes), you could switch their partners over and over again without any of them showing distress.
Still, the evening is a lot of fun, and the ending as lovely as you could wish.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, presented by the Arvada Center’s Black Box Repertory Theatre through May 16, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.