Review: 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream' at Hartford Stage
- OnStage Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic
I do not like Shakespeare. I don’t mean the dude (I’ve never met him), but what I mean is that I don’t like watching Shakespeare, mostly because it is a surefire way to make me feel like 1) I am in a foreign country; 2) a complete and utter idiot, or; 3) a nap. But thank all fairies and gods alike for Darko Tresnjak’s enlightened and radiant vision of what Shakespeare can be to us mere mortals: an engagingly accessible, theatrical treat!
(My attempt at) A quick synopsis of the main plot lines for those not familiar with Midsummer: four lovelorn teens, Hermia (Jenny Leona); Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet); Lysander (Tom Pecinka); and Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson), all want what they can’t have: Hermia and Lysander love each other, but Hermia’s father, Egeus (Robert Hannon Davis), wants Hermia to marry Demetrius, who is more than happy to oblige. Helena is madly in love with Demetrius, but he does not return her affections. Hermia and Lysander decide to sneak away to a distant relative’s home via the forest, with Helena and Demetrius hot on their tails.
There is also a royal wedding to take place for Hippolyta (Scarlett Strallen) and Theseus (Esau Pritchett), and a group of craftsmen – AKA the Mechanicals – who work on the estate want to prepare a production of “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the royal wedding. Peter Quince (Robert Hannon Davis) is their director with the others – Frances Flute (Matthew Macca), Nick Bottom (John Lavelle), Robin Starveling (Alexander Sovronsky), Snout (Brent Batemen), and Snug (Louis Tucci) – being the actors. The Mechanicals also take to the woods to rehearse their play so as to not spoil the royal surprise.
Fairies occupying the woods are having their own issues. King Fairy Oberon (Esau Pritchett) and Queen Fairy Titania (Scarlett Strallen) are having a tiff over an Indian child that once belonged to a dear (mortal now dearly departed) friend of Titania’s. She wants to keep the child to raise, but Oberon wants the child to be a knight for him. Titania and her fairies run off with the child, which annoys Oberon. He then conspires with Puck (Will Apicella) to put a spell on Titania so that she falls in love with the first creature she sees when she wakes. Puck wants to make sure he gets Titania good, so luckily, he comes upon the Mechanicals rehearsing in the woods, and turns Nick Bottom into a donkey. Bottom promptly scares away all his comrades, so Bottom, in exhaustion and frustration, collapses in sleep right near Titania’s sleeping quarters. When she wakes, she immediately becomes enamored with Bottom the Donkey (insert all ass jokes here).
Oberon also wants to use the same potion to get Demetrius to fall in love with Helena, but as one knows, never trust a Puck to do a King of the Fairies job, and Puck administers the potion to Lysander instead of Demetrius, who immediately falls in love with Helena and dismisses Hermia. So, Puck tries to fix things by casting the spell on Demetrius as well, so now the two lustful teenagers go after Helena, who thinks it is all a cruel joke to mock her. After some crazy fighting (which is hysterical), Puck leads the teens away from one another, only for them to each get lost in the forest. Each of the teens collapse in exhaustion, which gives Oberon time to fix who-loves-whom and right Puck’s wrongs. Luckily, this is a Shakespeare comedy, so eventually, all is righted, everyone gets married / makes up/ puts on their play/ is no longer a donkey, and Athens and the fairies are at peace.
The performances are all top-notch, but there are some standouts worth mentioning. Ms. Jacquet is wildly enjoyable as the geeky, awkward Helena. Her interpretation of the jilted Helena as a gawky schoolgirl is fresh, new, and well-done; her pleas to Demetrius on hand and knee are hysterical. And frankly, you should come see “Midsummer” just for the Mechanicals. These guys and their characters’ unmistakable personalities all interacting together is pure onstage magic. However, I must highlight Mr. Lavelle’s absolutely dazzling performance as Bottom. It makes perfect sense to see the “Upright Citizens Brigade” in his background since his character choices appear skillfully concocted: it feels original and raw, and it comes at the audience at lightning speed. I lost count at the number of famous actors’ style he embodied as he acted his role in the play-within-the play. This is a not-to-be missed performance.
A Hartford Stage production wouldn’t be complete without beautiful stage design and Alexander Dodge does not disappoint. Taking its design inspiration from the gate house at the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina, we have one side as the gate house on a sweeping estate, not unlike Downton Abbey. To transform into the Land of the Fairies in the forest, the stage rotates and a now ivy-covered gate house reads as a bucolic bungalow. Lighting design by York Kennedy creates alluring candlelight from lanterns and enchanting glows from bushes and sleeping nooks. Costumes by Joshua Pearson are cheery and colorful for those in the fairy realm, and muted and understated for the mortal sphere. The detail of the school uniforms – down to the prep school sports accessories like lacrosse sticks and cricket bats – is outstanding and added to the comedic effect of the four lovers running after each other on stage. The entire show bursts with color and delight.
Mr. Tresnjak believes that “Midsummer” is Shakespeare’s most perfect play, “Both populist and sophisticated, delightful and profound, Midsummer is a play of infinite riches.” I believe that it is the perspective of someone like Mr. Tresnjak, along with a cast of stellar actors and opulent design, that makes this production of “Midsummer” a jewel in the crown of the bard.
Photo: The cast of The cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.