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Man is but an ass: (l-r) Nigel Gore and Molly Wright Stuart in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Fitful Fantasy

By James Yeara

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By William Shakespeare, directed by Eleanor Holdridge

Shakespeare and Company, through Sept. 1

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the perfect Shakespeare comedy. For 412 years, the play’s melding of mixed-up lovers, frustrated nobles, passionate woodland spirits, and earnest workingmen trying to be actors has pleased audiences. The mix of poetry and passion, love and foolery, honesty and mockery is actor- and director-proof; A Midsummer Night’s Dream provokes empathy, and glimmers of thought, that lay just below the laughter like magic mushrooms hidden by flora.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been Shakespeare and Company’s signature piece since the troupe’s inaugural production of the play at the Mount in 1978. Seven times in 30 years, Shakespeare and Company have presented the play, the most memorable being those on the magnificent main stage at the Mount—including their unforgettable farewell performance there in 2001. From the deep woods of the outdoor stage Oberon, Titania, and Puck materialized, or the lovers De metrius, Helena, Hermia, and Lysander raced, or the workmen and Bottom invaded, or Duke Theseus and Hippolyta graded. Shakespeare and Company’s productions discovered new laughs and surprising resonances in the mix of poetry and passion, love and foolery, honesty and mockery. A Midsummer Night’s Dream brought out the best in them, or, perhaps, the play held a mirror up to the troupe, reflecting its measure.

The first production at the Founders Theatre of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is serviceable. The play still pleases. The audience occasionally laughs. The lovers follow each other across the stage. The fairies pout and pose. The nobles wear costumes. And the rude workmen wear even more hyperbolically symbolic costumes while posing. The actors bow. The audience applauds and leaves.

It’s not that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is overwhelmed by director Eleanor Holdridge’s romantic-era setting. Jessica Ford’s costume design gives intimations of Shelley and Keats to the lovers and the nobles. The white puffy beehive hair of the fairies suggest the B-52s. Les Dickert’s lighting design and Kris Stone’s set design create evocative spaces in changeable hues for the lovers, nobles, fairies, and Athenian craftsmen to stand. The white pillows scattered about the stage and the 20-foot-high panels of white shimmery fabric give this Dream a Sealy commercial quality that would be suitable for a post-9/11 production. The Founders Theatre’s charms are used well: The cyc upstage changes colors, shadows are created, the cast runs around the hallways around the audience, actors throw open the trapdoor downstage right and drop the pillows in.

While this Dream isn’t the worst production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the rich history of the Berkshires (Williamstown Theatre Festival’s self-referential shambles of 2004 is untouchable), it’s the most flaccid that I’ve seen at Shakespeare and Company. The hallmark of the troupe has always been the deep connection to the text, the sense that the words sprung from the spine; here they’re just memorized lines. These are glorious lines to memorize, but they deserve what Shakespeare and Company has made so memorable in the past: human breath.

 


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