Review - A Midsummer Night's Dream & An Early History of Fire

The lunatics, lovers and poets merrily charge onto the stage in full force in Classic Stage Company's raucous and witty, sexy and sensual mounting of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Director Tony Speciale's playfully romantic staging of Shakespeare's tale of earthbound lovers fleeing to the woods to escape an arranged marriage, only to find themselves mixed up in the petty squabbles between a royal faerie couple, features a completely winning ensemble and entrancing visuals.

Set designer Mark Wendland tilts a mirrored wall above a dark squishy playing surface (which eventually gets covered by a thick storm of red rose petals), allowing Andrea Lauer's colorful costumes (a combination of vintage circus, fetish gear and Halloween getups) to create kaleidoscopic images.

Leading the festivities are Anthony Heald and Bebe Neuwirth, who first appear as a courtly Duke Theseus and his reluctant bride-to-be, Hippolyta, who displays her displeasure with subtle, looks-that-can-kill mannerisms. They double as faerie king Oberon (sly, crafty and dressed in a sort of post-apocalyptic biker gear) and his sensuous wife Titania; a role that has Neuwirth looking stunning in little more than a black bustier.

Taylor Mac makes for a stuffy Egeus, whose disapproval of his daughter's choice of a mate sets the plot in motion, but spends most of the evening as a madcap Puck, parading an outlandish wardrobe (like a pink elephant suit and an outfit that makes him look like a human peppermint stick) and sneaking in asides to the audience.

Halley Wegryn Gross steals the young lovers' scenes with her very funny bubble-headed Valley Girl take on Helena, with Christina Ricci providing a sweet Hermia. Jordan Dean (Lysander) and Nick Gehlfuss (Demetrius) play their suitors as a pair of lusty, beefcake frat boys. When tensions rise among the quartet, fight choreographer Carrie Brewer stops the show with a hilarious bout that would make pro wrestlers take notice. Even Oberon and Puck stop what they're doing to take in the match from a pair of beach chairs while munching on popcorn and slurping soda through a straw.

But when the comic antics temporarily cease, the young lovers - all of whom have stripped down to pure white underwear - fall asleep sleep entwined in one another, reflected on the mirror as a beautiful vision of innocent affection.

The same kind of transition occurs when the troupe of amateur actors performs The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. Steven Skybell's wonderfully hammy Nick Bottom makes outlandish melodrama out of Pyramus' death scene, but it's followed by David Greenspan, as the serious-mindEd Francis Flute, playing Thisbe's final monologue with quiet, delicate sincerity that pulls at the heart.

The combination of wacky humor and soft, lovely moments make this Midsummer particularly dreamy.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Anthony Heald and Taylor Mac; Bottom: James Patrick Nelson, Chad Lindsey, Bebe Neuwirth, Rob Yang and Erin Hill.

*************************************

It's rarely a good sign when you open your program and find that a new cast list has been pasted over what was originally there. David Rabe's An Early History of Fire doesn't prove to be the exception. What might have been intended to be a look at small-town America's transition from the cozy 1950s to the heated 60s turns out to be as aimless as its ensemble of characters.

The first act kept reminding me of the 1955 Oscar winner, Marty. College dropout Danny (Theo Stockman) is back living with his gregarious German immigrant father (Gordon Clapp) and a life of little more than hanging out and getting drunk with his ambitionless childhood buddies, who are wary of the new girl from the rich part of town that he's been seeing. Karen (Claire van der Boom), has been encouraging Danny's dreams of being a writer, introducing him to the works of Kerouac and Salinger and to the creativity-inspiring effects of marijuana.

Benji's (Devin Ratray) ex-girlfriend Shirley (Erin Darke), who eventually went on to turning tricks, is a more comfortable fit for Danny's gang; although the frustrated Benji is considering paying for a sexual reunion.

Though the play displays Rabe's established talent for working class character dialogue, the plotless evening rambles on pointlessly, despite the respectable efforts of director Jo Bonney's ensemble. When one character starts a conversation by wondering aloud how Elvis Presley will eventually die - a line that received a good deal of audible disapproval the night I attended - it feels like the talented playwright is grasping at anything to try and make this one work.

Photo of Theo Stockman & Claire van der Boom by Joan Marcus.

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