Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Well-met by moonlight

Paula Plum puts the moves on Timothy John Smith in A Midsummer Night's Dream (photos by Nosaj T. Herland.)

Production concepts often make a nightmare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, what with all the cruelty (and bestiality!) beneath its gossamer surface waiting to be excavated by ham-handed academics. The new staging from Boston Theatreworks, however, doesn’t just survive its concept, it almost defies it. Director Daniel Elihu Kramer has given the play a twist that, believe it or not, Midsummer may never have endured before: he’s cross-gender-cast Oberon and Titania, and then double-cast them as Theseus and Hippolyta. That’s right – Theseus (Timothy John Smith) gets in touch with his inner fairy as Titania, while his captive bride Hippolyta (Paula Plum) spreads her wings as Oberon.

But oddly, Smith and Plum don’t pick up the sexual/conceptual glove Kramer throws down (perhaps because they sense how easily this "concept" could slide into burlesque) – instead, they both give amusing but unassuming performances, which operate safely within the traditional parameters of the play (which was, after all, designed to be independent of its performers' genders). Thus, despite its director’s intents, this Dream doesn’t share its pillow with sexual politics. Indeed, its sex quotient seems the victim of shrinkage – Shakespeare’s dimwitted lovers dominate, rather than the glittering fairy folk, but the results are still an appealing, knockabout comedy, powered by a truly impressive sensitivity to the (streamlined) text from a very solid ensemble.

That’s worth repeating, I think, because it’s such a contrast to recent BTW Shakespeare productions, which have been most memorable for Jonathan Epstein’s scenery-chewing. This time around, however, the whole cast is strikingly tight; in fact, this is probably the strongest Shakespeare ensemble I’ve seen in many a watery Boston moon (the Huntington only matched it in Love's Labour's Lost, while the ART and Actors’ Shakespeare Project have never done nearly so well). Everyone speaks their verse trippingly on the tongue, and if the fairies miss the poetry of some of Shakespeare’s lyrics, the lovers make up for it with smart, funny bickering.

But then I’m talking about the same people, for this Midsummer makes do with just eight dreamers, who do double and triple duty to populate court, town and wood (they’ve already been bettered, however, by a New York production that gets the job done with only six, some of whom are blind and one of whom is in a wheelchair!). Of course doubling is always a sound Shakespearean strategy, but this is especially true for Midsummer, where the Bard developed his first multifoliate plot (and theme). Shakespeare’s mechanicals and fairies and lovers all do reflect – and refract - each other, and if this cast were as strong at forest magic as they are at forest farce, the production might have been one for the history books.

But to be fair, it’s hard to conjure up much atmosphere when you’re in a bathrobe, and your bower is a bathtub - and the June moon is a wall clock, as here. (Even the production’s one hint of fantasy – a bright field of poppies – nods more to Oz than fairyland.) Still, Timothy John Smith does his best as a husky Titania who might be a paunchy cousin of Blanche DuBois, and he and Robert Pemberton (as, yes, Bottom) do manage to dodge any dumb bi-curious vibe in that tub (above). Elsewhere Pemberton is skillful and ingenious, but I’m not mad about his Bottom-as-Brando; I like my Bottoms (I know, har de har) rather more innocent. The rest of the mechanicals – particularly Risher Reddick - definitely know their way around a dumb show (in both senses of the term), although Shelley Bolman is memorable as both Quince and Lysander (his treatment of the “true love never did run smooth” speech is the one rush of mature poetry in the evening). I was also particularly enamored of Elizabeth Hayes’s smart, snappy Helena, and more than amused (at times even moved) by Angie Jepson’s unusually sensitive Hermia.

I was slightly disappointed, I confess, with Paula Plum in both her genders; Plum never explores Oberon’s florid masculinity (much less his vengefulness), and even her Hippolyta is a pretty calm customer. And she had little chemistry with Ben Lambert’s Puck, who was likewise none too engaging (Puck can be cold, but he’s got to be fun); to be fair, Lambert made up for this somewhat with fey, snippy turns as Starveling and Philostrate.

So can Midsummer survive a half-baked concept and half-hearted turns from its stars? Frankly, this play can survive anything, as long as its text comes through – the pleasant surprise here is how confident and intelligent that delivery turns out to be.

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