BWW Review: Folger's Delightful MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
Nobody's quite sure of the birthdate of the greatest writer in the English language, but everyone is pretty sure William Shakespeare died in 1616, making this the 400th anniversary of his death, or as Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library calls it, "the fifth century of his afterlife."
Why his works endure four centuries after his death is plainly evident in the Folger Theatre's vibrant production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a work so popular it's already been produced on at least three other local stages this season.
Its enduringly delightful tale of mismatched coupling, unrequited love and the meddling of wood fairies - as well as the bungling efforts of a hapless theater company - still has plenty to say to mere mortals hundreds of years later.
And in the hands of director Aaron Posner, who provides a fresh clever and fast-moving adaptation, there's an delicious wealth of entertainment to be had as well.
The work begins, in the typically intimate Folger setting with the play's Puck, the splendid Erin Weaver, roaming the audience, mussing their hair, trying on glasses and sniffing their scents. Eventually she enlists us into playing our own part - as audience members - in a kind of royal press conference with a big microphone that lets us know we don't know what time this comedy is set, or if there is a specific time intended at all.
There Hermia (Betsy Mugavero) is supposed to be marrying Demetrius (Desmond Bing) but she's really in love with Lysander (Adam Wesley Brown) and is intent on fleeing with him. Meanwhile, her friend Helena (Kim Wong) longs for Demetrius who remains uninterested.
Once in the woods, though, Puck and Oberon (Eric Hissom, who also plays the duke Theseus, about to be wed to Hippolyte, played by Caroline Stefanie Clay) decide to mix things up, just to mess with the mortals. With the gender change in casting Puck comes a little sexual tension as well.
So Lysander goes after Helena, as does Demetrius and she thinks they're both cruelly teasing her. Poor Hermia for her part doesn't know why she's been abandoned. But the fairies bring things back to normal before too long.
In the meantime, the traveling acting troupe known as the Rude Mechanicals in the text are presented as a kind of hapless girls school trying to put on the play of Pyramus and Thisbe. There Holly Twyford nearly steals the show as the conceited Bottom, who wants to play nearly every part of the play. This makes her a prime target of the fairy king Oberon, who as a play on her name, turns her into an ass; that is to say, a donkey.
Then Oberon has his wife Tatiana (Clay again) fall for the hee-hawing Bottom. That too, gets cleared up in time for the wedding party's theatrical entertainment. By then nobody can explain what's happened to them - it is as if a dream. And what a refreshing one it has been.
Also of note in the cast are Richard Ruiz as the director of the play within a play and Megan Graves in both of her roles, as a Snug who speaks way too softly as a lion, and even as the Duke's Philostrate, where she uses the kind of timing, pauses and looks that, like a lot of the direction of the play, eke out laughs that weren't in the original folio.
Posner's zippy take on the Bard includes original music from Andre Pluess and random actors singing contemporary pop songs to themselves (Helena does Adele!). There is also scene changing electronic dance music (that can't be stopped by adults with a remote) to a full blown disco finale that pauses enough for Puck to say her famous final lines: "If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended: That you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear."
Posner's insurrectionist take is always in spirit with Puck's buoyant mischievousness in a production that ensures that a new century's theatergoers will be as entertained by Shakespeare as have uncounted millions over the past four centuries.
Costume designer Devon Painter picks up on Posner's indistinct time setting and dresses the cast in colorful and always suitable design. A yellow jacket and backpack are somehow perfect for Hermia, on Paige Hathaway's set that combines both sleek woodworked pedestals, a cutaway moon and beds of woodsy flowers, lit by Jesse Belsky.
Nothing will thaw the winter blues as quickly as this delight.
Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" continues at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St., SE through March 6. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu/theatre.