BWW Reviews: The Kennedy Center's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM is an Innovative Retelling of a Timeless Classic
Helena's Act II lamentation in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "O weary night, O long and tedious night, abate thy hours," is not something anyone will ever say watching the Kennedy Center's current revival. This innovative production uses a synergy of human and puppet interaction to bring alive Shakespeare's timeless classic in a splendid production.
Presented as part of the World Stages Festival and performed by the Bristol Old Vic of England in association with South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, this A Midsummer Night's Dream is the perfect production for either Shakespeare enthusiasts or anybody wishing to get re-associated with the playwright for the first time since tenth grade honors English. This production wonderfully balances the elements of love, comedy and fantasy which fill A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The events of A Midsummer Night's Dream all center on the marriage of Theseus (David Ricardo-Pearce), Duke of Athens, as he prepares to marry Hippolyta (Saskia Portway). Meanwhile four lovers: Hermia (Akiya Henry) and Demetrius (Kyle Lima), Helena (Naomi Cranston) and Lysander (Alex Felton) escape to the woods in a bout of romantic confusion as they try to discern their feelings for each other. Also in the woods are the Mechanicals, an acting troupe gathered to rehearse a play for the royal wedding. And surrounding the lovers and the actors is Puck (Saikat Ahamed, Fionn Gill and Lucy Tuck), a mischievous sprite who messes with the lovers and the Mechanicals on behalf of the King of the Fairies Oberon (David Ricardo-Pearce) and his wife Titania (Saskia Portway).
Vicki Mottimer's design has given the entire production a blue collar feel to it. In Act I, Scene I, we first meet Hippolyta in a woodworking shop of sorts. Throughout the show a rough curtain hangs to the side of the stage while the skeleton of a ship's framework looms to the right. Lighting Designer Philip Gladwell uses that skeleton as a masterful effect, shining light through it to give the forest a mysterious feel.
As the play journeys out into the forest we see all the props suddenly take on a different meaning giving the production a bohemian elegance. Scrap pieces of wood which litter the set suddenly become trees and later combine to shape Titania.
Albeit that the Kennedy Center is promoting this production as, "The internationally acclaimed War Horse collaborators reunite to re-envision Shakespeare's romantic comedy," those expecting a similar production to the Olivier and Tony Award winning play will be disappointed. While War Horse had a very literal translation from animal to puppet, A Midsummer Night's Dream takes a more creative approach.
For the character of Puck, puppet designer Adrian Kohler chose to create him out of an assortment of items including a wicker basket, watering can and handsaw. A team of three actors then join together to give the jovial fairy form, each taking turns with Puck's lines. It's an ingenious bit of staging because it allows us to see how Puck can suddenly materialize to have fun with the lovers and then disappear when things go awry. The three actors take turn giving voice to Puck giving him a scatter brained quality easily seeing showing how he can confuse Oberon's wishes!
Tom Morris' smart direction also has several of the actors and puppeteers doubling up on roles, without distorting or confusing the piece. Not an easy task when it comes to Shakespeare.
David Ricardo Pearce plays Oberon and Theseus, characters who have royal stature in their own realms. There's almost a kinship to be had between the two as they navigate their own lover's quarrels, but Pearce's portrayal never once disorients the audience. With a giant head, one mechanical arm and deep voice his Oberon comes alive. And when those puppet extensions are gone, he transforms into Theseus who is seeking to marry the woman he loves, while addressing the concerns of his subjects.
Saskia Portway is in a similar position playing both Hippolyta andTitania, bethrothed to Thesueus and Oberon respectively. The design of Portway's Titania has more definition, which seems fitting given her status as queen of the fairies. Portway also uses a giant head to become Titania and is joined by the company, using wooded boards behind her to give the character an angelic feeling. The versatility of this company is fantastic. Not only have they mastered the intricacies of Shakespeare's text but the difficulties of bringing puppets alive.
Special recognition in the ensemble must be given to Miltos Yerolemou. As Bottom, a member of the Mechanicals, Puck plays a joke by having him transformed into an ass. Shakespeare's text meant the animal, a donkey, but in this production Bottom's bottom becomes the ass in both the literal and figurative sense of the word.
As the lovers, Naomi Cranston (Helena), Alex Felton (Lysander), Akiya Henry (Hermia), and Kyle Lima (Demetrius), allow us to understand why A Midsummer Night's Dream eternal truths have made this play a classic. Together all four create a bond with the audience that allows us to experience the absurdity and humor in trying to understand the all-confusing topic of love.
This production is presented as part of the Kennedy's Center's World Stages Festival in which work from more than 20 countries are being performed. Because of the presence of puppets, the audience featured a large contingent of young theatergoers and yet, judging by the roars of childish laughter from the audience, this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was successful in introducing them to a classic.
If all that wasn't enough, at Thursday night's performance the audience saw love take a realistic shape when at the curtain call one of the actors playing in the Mechanicals, Christopher Keegan, proposed to his girlfriend on-stage. The resulting yes, standing ovation and cheers erupting from the audience capped off what was a wonderful night at the theater.
Run time is Two hours, forty-five minutes with one intermission. A Midsummer Night's Dream plays thru March 23rd at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets, call (202) 416-8000 or purchase them online.
Graphic: (L-R) Kyle Lima and Akiya Henry in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Courtesy of the Kennedy Center