A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Theater review by Sandy MacDonald
Haven’t we all seen our share of staid, twee Dreams? In this coproduction by Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and the Pearl Theatre Company, director Eric Tucker appears unencumbered by respect for this time-honored classic. Judging from the nonstop antics he has crammed into his condensed-cast version—a mere five actors juggle some two dozen roles—he loves the play too much to let it languish, dreamily, draped in the aesthetics of yesteryear. Unflaggingly energetic and inventive, Tucker's staging revives the sense of excitement that the earliest groundlings must have experienced in seeing something so fresh and new.
The setting is stark: a rectangular arena lined with kitty litter. We’ve been here before—but no coliseum (that’s the conceit of the opening) was ever livelier. Jason O’Connell (one of Tucker’s Bedlam company regulars) emerges from the shadows, a grunting ape, the first of many animal shapes he’ll assume, as a very busy Egeus/Bottom/Pyramus and above all Puck, who’s reduced at times, by the exigencies of role-switching, to a mere insect poised on the forefinger of one of his other personas. Confused? You actually won’t be, so clear are the often-spasmodic transitions, and so familiar the story line.
Every actor gets signature bits: Nance Williamson’s goony gait as the spurned Helena, for instance, infallibly amuses, as does Sean McNall’s Hispanic interpretation of the haughty suitor Demetrius. There’s nothing shticky, however, about the overall mise en scène. Tucker manages to deconstruct a few ordinarily abstruse sexual/scatological jokes but declines to underscore them with the usual tedious nudge-nudge dig in the ribs. You can expect to laugh pretty much nonstop, especially at Bottom’s Method-like manner of searching out Thisbe. The Rude Mechanicals are nonpareil, including Williamson and Mark Bedard as a creepily conjoined Snug the Joiner. As Titania (and Hermia, Tom Snout, miscellaneous et al.), balletic Joey Parsons combines willowy Margot Fonteyn arms, piercing Agnes Moorehead eyes and a bray, when incensed, that would put Bottom the ass to shame.
Deprived of—or rather, spared—the usual papier-mâché headpiece (the production eschews props; the costumes could pass for gymwear), this Bottom discovers his donkeyhood in incremental phases, and the metamorphosis terrifies him. He’s more baby than boor, especially given that the sprites give off a bullying S/M vibe. Nature is not cozy here; nor should it be. O’Connell’s Puck is often outright menacing, as befits a force emanating from the fearsome mysteries encoded in dreams.
Purists might object to the occasional interpolation of modern asides, but as Puck might (and does) say, in disbelief over some absurdity or other, "Come on!" Preposterousness rules this enchanted realm. If only more plays were as playful!—Sandy MacDonald
Pearl Theatre Company (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Eric Tucker. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 45mins. One intermission.