A Midsummer Night's Dream delivers enormous rewards

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By William Shakespeare. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson. A Bard on the Beach production. At the Mainstage on Saturday, June 21. Continues until September 20

At its best, this A Midsummer Night’s Dream is gorgeous and hilarious—but it’s not always at its best.

In Dream, fairies have their way with two quite different sets of people. The first group, the young lovers Helena, Demetrius, Hermia, and Lysander, stumbles into the fairy-infested forest outside Athens and the sprites bewitch them. So, for a while, everybody madly pursues the wrong love objects. In the same forest, a bunch of local tradesmen—also called “mechanicals”—are rehearsing a play. Through his servant, Puck, Oberon, king of the fairies, puts a spell on Titania, his fairy queen, making her fall in love with Bottom, one of those actors. And oh, by the way, Puck has also given Bottom the head of an ass.

It’s all faintingly, beautifully wacky but, although the worlds of the play overlap there’s a big difference between clowning (the mechanicals), supernatural fancy (the fairies), and essentially naturalistic love-struck excess (the lovers).

The problem with this production is that director Dean Paul Gibson ladles shtick over all of these sensibilities. This is appropriate for the mechanicals’ scenes, so they thrive. In fact, they take over the show as the lovers’ scenes fade and the fairy scenes proceed in fits and starts.

Scott Bellis delivers a genius performance as Bottom. Playing the character as a buck-toothed, red-nosed theatre geek, his comic chops are off the charts. In fact, all of the actors playing the mechanicals ace their jobs and the world they create together is completely of a piece.

But in the lovers’ scenes, the physical business often sits oddly on top of the text. The exchange in which Helena and Hermia insult one another about differences in their height—it’s “dwarf” versus “maypole”—is a classic, for instance. But Gibson’s staging goes so WWE that we lose much of the passage’s intrinsic humour.

To his credit, Daniel Doheny (Demetrius) stays emotionally grounded in the lovers’ world, and Claire Hesselgrave finds rewarding eccentricity in Hermia despite the production’s relentless drive.

In fairyland, as in every other land we visit, the actors often holler—even though they’re wearing head mikes—and they hammer their way through the verse like carpenters who are behind schedule. Because of this lack of nuance, I lost the meaning of an entire speech that Naomi Wright delivered as Titania. And Titania has a backup group of fairies who keep singing doo-wop numbers that stop the action to display how clever they are.

Still, the show delivers enormous rewards. Matching Bellis in excellence, Kyle Rideout plays a darkly punked-out Puck and spews shape-shifting creativity: he’s a marine sergeant, a sexy little slut, a ventriloquist. There’s something almost hallucinogenic about watching him.

Designers Kevin McAllister and Pam Johnson have created the most beautiful stage ever to grace the Mainstage tent at Bard (it will also be used for The Tempest): its organic, white, funnel-like shape makes you feel like you’re inside a seashell. Most of Mara Gottler’s steam-punk Victorian-with-a-splash-of-Elizabethan costumes are knockouts: Titania’s shimmering gown is almost as memorable as the one Marilyn Monroe wears in Some Like It Hot. And director Gibson has crafted some unforgettable images, including one at the start of the show that’s composed of trembling umbrellas.

Before intermission, I bounced in and out of this production. After it, I was much more consistently in. The mechanicals’ performance of their play is screamingly funny. When the lovers wake up from their spells, they are all blessedly relaxed and talking like real people. And Gibson creates even more visual poetry, including some that’s built around the figure of a changeling child. This Dream is inconsistent, but when it works, it’s transporting.

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