‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
By William Shakespeare
Through July 30 at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 2 Convent Road, Morris Township.
Outdoor Stage: The Greek Theatre (at Convent Station)
By GWEN OREL
“Lord, what fools these mortals be.”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of Shakespeare’s happiest, most pastoral and most magical comedies.
Fairies exist in this world the way kings and trees do. Their reality is never questioned.They are mischievous, not evil like the witches in “Macbeth.”Their verse is gorgeous (Mendelssohn, Benjamin Britten, Groovelily and The Millburnaires have all set some to music).
“Midsummer” is often one of the first Shakespeare plays people read. Children can easily follow it, and the play lends itself easily to all levels of production.
In fact, there’s a “community theater” troupe, made up of “rude mechanicals,” or blue-collar workers.
A quick recap:
Fairy queen Titania (Vanessa Morosco, who also plays Hippolyta) is quarreling with her husband, Oberon (Earl Baker Jr., who also plays Theseus). So he asks Puck (Felix Mayes) to enchant her eyes to fall in love with the first being she sees. It’s an ass: Nick Bottom (Ian Hersey), recently transformed.
Puck also bewitches Athenian lovers, so that both men believe they love the same girl.
Everything ends happily.
So much of the play takes place in the forest of Arden, outside of Athens, that Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s choice to present it in their outdoor Greek theater seems inspired.
We made up a little checklist for the play. Bottom line: even a so-so “Midsummer” is fun.
Magical, however, this “Midsummer” is not.
Well, yes, there are fairies and enchantments. But the fairies are costumed, according to the press release, in items that would go to a landfill: subway cards, blank CDs. The stage of Athens is gray and urban looking and one pillar even says “junkyard” in it There’s an empty bathtub in the forest.Director Bonnie J. Monte’s double and triple casting doesn’t always work.
See above. The costumes and sets (both by director Monte) make the least of the outdoor setting, so much so that at first Athens appeared to be a Greek restaurant. Nobody in Athens looks stately, just nonspecifically urban: Helena (Nike Kadri) first appears dressed for badminton. Hermia (Courtney McGowan) brings bug spray and a yoga mat to her forest elopement. This isn’t funny or illuminating.
Overall: opportunity missed.
Weirdly, Beethoven comes in during Athenian portions, including Philostrate (Mayes again) conducting “Beethoven’s Fifth” to a recording, at the top. This is never explained. There’s Latin music for the fairies.
The male half of the lovers are weak. Lysander’s devotion (Jonathan Finnegan) seems so flimsy we figure Hermia’s well rid of him. Demetrius’ (Austin Blunk), who once loved Helena, seems now to loathe her, so his renewed love is about as convincing as the love Voldemort’s potion-stricken dad had for his mother (which is to say, not at all).
Kadri plays the same hurt note over and over.As Hermia, however, McGowan channels Reese Witherspoon, with comical feisty rage. She’s also adorable as mechanical Snug, who plays their lion, with a humble roar.
Overall: one out of three. Unromantic.
FAIRY KING AND QUEEN: check!
Ah. Here the play succeeds. Oberon and Titania rise above their ugly costumes to play clearly loving spouses just at odds for the moment. Morosco in particular shines as Titania and Hippolyta, speaking verse gorgeously in a gorgeous voice. Baker Jr. shows his fundamental decency as Theseus as well.
The lovers’ enchantment falls flat. But when Bottom is changed into an ass, the play soars. Hersey kicks his leg with pleasure when Titania strokes his ears. Her love is hilarious and pitiful. As director of the mechanicals, Bruce Cromer kills it with Peter Quince’s exasperation. “DEVOURED,” he shouts, when Bottom says a lion deflowered Thisbe.
Overall: very good.
MECHANICAL COMEDY: check!
Sparkling! The mechanicals steal the show. Bottom may be an ass but he also has talent: when he speaks of losing Thisbe, you may agree with Hippolyta when she says “Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man.” Blunk is dull as Demetrius, but his “la la la”-singing Thisbe delights.
DIRECTION AND THEME
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” really isn’t about tension between two worlds, but about the seen and the unseen living in harmony. The theme doesn’t work. In fact, so in harmony are the worlds that Titania threatens to upset the human world with her show of temper. The theme of tension doesn’t work.
Monte, as usual, stages comedy brilliantly. The rest seems half-hearted.
Overall: not a magical “Midsummer.”
But it’s still “Midsummer,” and a night outside watching the scampering and listening to the verse has its own magic.