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BWW Reviews: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at Stratford Festival, is a Wild Ride

Director CHRIS ABRAHAM's production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at the Festival Theatre is sure to be the most talked-about production at Stratford Festival this season. This, in itself is a huge feat, as this season is full of brave and exciting productions. Not all of the talk will be positive (though much of it will be), but it will all certainly be passionate!

I do not think I am going too far when I say that this production of DREAM is a wild and ridiculous ride-and in the best possible way. It will undoubtedly be polarizing, as some Shakespeare purists might not be able to look past some added lines, unexpected pop song choices and over-the-top physical comedy. There also appear to be some lines of dialogue missing, which some might find unsettling...but in the end, this is Mr. Abraham's DREAM and it's in great hands.

What this production is certain to do is to bring a new audience to the theatre (and likely back again). It also allows for audiences who have seen countless versions of DREAM to rediscover it through a new set of eyes, and fall in love with Shakespeare's comedy once again. I am admittedly one of those people who knows this play quite well, and who was actually not particularly excited to see it yet again. I laughed through this entire production; however, and after it was over, I then felt compelled to go home and crack open my copy of the play. What's more, I have already booked a ticket to go see it again.

In this production of DREAM, the Festival Theatre stage is transformed into a beautiful and lavish 'enchanted forest' of sorts. Green grass covers the stage, lights dangle throughout, and in the centre is a small pond that is used to hilarious effect in the second act. Designer, JULIE FOX outdoes herself. The show opens with a beautiful and moving wedding of two grooms played by JOSUE LABOUCANE and THOMAS OLAJIDE. This scene might just bring a tear to your eye. It is also very relatable in that it really feels like a wedding that one might be attending this summer. Each archetype of wedding guest is covered--from the cousin with the unfortunate headgear, to those who have already started the party, to the oblivious relatives who show up at the eleventh hour. There is even a sign language interpreter present-which rang very true for me, as this is the case at weddings held within my own family! Long before the production officially begins, actors are roaming around the audience welcoming everyone to the wedding. From start to finish, the audience is made to feel like they are part of the show, and some lucky audience members even get to sit on cushions along the edges of the stage.

This production is also somewhat of a gender-bender. Puck and Lysander (CHICK REID and TARA ROSLING respectively) are both females in this production, and Titania, the character, is still a female, but she is portrayed by a man. (EVAN BULIUNG and JONATHAN GOAD alternate the roles of Titania and Oberon throughout the season. This evening, Mr. Buliung was our Titania). This actually makes a great deal of sense, seeing as these characters are being created by guests at the wedding, whose primary goal is to simply put on a fun show for the grooms.

Both the play within the play, and the play within the play within the play are hysterically funny. Every type of humour from wordplay, to slapstick comedy, has the audience in stitches throughout the production. You may think you know this play, but many things will still surprise you, and that is not an easy feat with a classical production. Despite all this, the play does not lose the essence of a Shakespearean comedy. In fact, all of the antics are incredibly well suited, if not necessary for this particular Shakespearean comedy that is all about the whimsical. If Shakespeare had not meant for this play to be polarizing, controversial, wacky, and fun, then he likely would not have had Puck offer a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek apology for any "offense" the play may have caused to the audience during the final monologue. In Elizabethan England, it probably took a lot less for something to be considered off-the-wall enough for Puck's comments to be needed at the end. It is now 2014, and Mr. Abraham has upped the ante as they say.

It should be clarified that when I use the word 'controversial', I speak of the use of ad-libs, pop songs, tap solos, gender-bending portrayals of characters, etc. I am not referring to the marriage of two men that starts off the play. Although perhaps some might see this as controversial, it is actually a brilliant choice, because, as other elements of the play have been updated, so now has the theme of lovers facing obstacles to be together-a theme that is already prevalent throughout the play.

The company members clearly enjoy their jobs in this production. The energy from the stage is transmitted throughout the theatre, all the way to the back rows of the balcony at all times. The cast strikes a good balance of telling this story, and fleshing out these characters, whilst adding a contemporary comedic flare that is sure to entertain the droves of high school students that make their way to the theatre every season. To clarify, it is not an immature comedic flare (well, maybe sometimes), but more so a relatable one. It was not just young people who were laughing, however. This show is fun for all ages.

Some stand-outs in this production included STEPHEN OUIMETTE as the hysterical and self-important Nick Bottom; and LIISA REPO-MARTELL as the lovesick Helena, who suddenly has the tables turned on her. Both BULIUNG and GOAD are also excellent in their respective roles, and I suspect that many audience members will be seeing the show twice in order to see both versions of Titania and Oberon. This will come in handy for the box office, considering they may or may not be owing rights money to the likes of Bruno Mars, New Order...and, well...the 'Star Wars' people.

A special mention must be made to the child actors in this production-and there were many! All were up to the task, and seemed to have a firm understanding of this complex production. Young GABRIEL LONG was a standout...and not just for his Bruno Mars solo! I recall being impressed with him in last season's Merchant of Venice as well. There is a long future in the theatre for this young man if he wants it.

Overall, this production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM does not take itself too seriously, but certainly takes it's key themes seriously, and does so to great effect. It is the show to see this season at the Festival, and it is already the talk of the town. Make a point to catch this one!

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM is playing at the Festival Theatre until September 20th.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Goad (centre) as Titania with members of the company in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Michael Cooper.

By: Lauren Gienow @whatlaurenthinx

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