Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Actors' Shakespeare Project
Review by Josh Garstka

Also see Nancy's review of Arrabal


Elle Borders and Cast
Photo by Nile Scott Shots
Anything can happen in the woods. In the Actors' Shakespeare Project's high-spirited production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, running now at the Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge, the otherworldly forest is where our silliest, most enchanting fantasies materialize before our eyes. It's a joy to see a troupe of eight committed actors, all double—and triple—cast, bring William Shakespeare's comedy to life only using their voices and bodies and the simplest tricks of stagecraft. In director Patrick Swanson's capable hands, this Midsummer is one of the funniest and most charming Shakespearean productions I've seen.

Eric Levenson's set design, three bare white walls and a white floor, is a tip of the hat to Peter Brook's famous 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company staging (which ASP credits as an inspiration). Today, we're accustomed to radically reconceived Shakespeare, but the Brook Midsummer was, at the time, boldly experimental for stripping away sets and period costumes and integrating percussion and acrobatics. Swanson appears to have borrowed a few bits of business from that production, too, including Nick Bottom's clownish red snout when he transforms to an ass.

Even as an homage to the past, Swanson's Midsummer finds its own way to fill in these white walls. The plays opens on Shakespeare's mortals, just actors on an empty stage as Hermia faces her father's demand that she abandon her beau Lysander and marry Demetrius, who is deemed more suitable for his daughter. Naturally, Hermia and Lysander run off together, with Demetrius and the spurned Helena (pining to get Demetrius back) in hot pursuit. But as the lovers venture woods-ward, those clean, unvarnished walls open up to greater possibility, like a quiet nursery that springs to life after the parents leave.

Each small theatrical gesture employed—a hidden bed, a magic trick of flowers blooming before our eyes—feels like a child learning to use its imagination. And as we enter the realm of the gods, everything becomes a little more peculiar. It's a strangely dressed place, thanks to costume designer Jessica Pribble, like a thrift shop ransacked for a Halloween party. Titania sweeps in wearing a feathered, beaded Mardi Gras dress, Oberon goes more glam-rock, and the fairies carry clubs and wear white half-masks and bowler hats like they've escaped from A Clockwork Orange. One might expect a rave, but instead we're surprised with some lighthearted musical interludes: a lullaby for the fairies to put Titania to sleep, then a silly little dance when she awakens to the donkey-headed Bottom. Cellist Rob Bethel, seated high above, accompanies with prismatic fragments of melodies, often synced to an electronic beat; there's even a nifty trick where he plays pitched wine glasses with his bow.

We're constantly aware that the players are on display. Fairies pop up above the high stage walls, watching downward and commenting on the lovers' silly human foibles. The lovers' confrontation—when Demetrius and Lysander, both under the power of Puck's magical potion, cast aside Hermia to battle for Helena's affections—is a verbal and physical delight, played like a kindergarten playground brawl at a breakneck screwball pace. The quartet of young actors plays up their characters' couple-swapping foolishness; Jake Athyal's Lysander and Mac Young's Demetrius are hopelessly narcissistic as they preen and posture for their ladies, while Monica Giordano's Helena is the fast-talking self-absorbed princess type, baffled that she isn't getting the attention she expects. Elle Borders, a determined Hermia, is even better as a mustachioed no-nonsense Peter Quince, quick-changing into construction-worker garb like the other lovers to double as the thespian-inclined "mechanicals."

Equiano Mosieri and Paula Plum also double up as the royals of earth and the fairy realm. They are staid and authoritative as the betrothed Theseus and Hippolyta of Athens, and then they get to let loose as fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania, joined in mischief by Sarah Newhouse's Puck. The joyous spirit of the night carries all the way through to the mechanicals' staging of Pyramus and Thisbe—a highlight of the production, as all the tragediennes enact their play-within-a-play. Of them all, Steven Barkhimer's Nick Bottom is tops. He sheds Bottom's Red Sox-capped blue-collar manner for a spot-on British period-movie accent as Pyramus, peaking with a hilariously melodramatic death scene.

Before night falls, the cast forms a circle for a final song together; it's like we've been invited to witness their secret pre-curtain ritual. Then, as Puck closes the show saying "Give me your hands, if we be friends," the actors extend their hands to us as they pass through the audience. This farewell gesture reminds us, once again, that everything we've been giddily watching was a performance. And what a performance it was.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is presented by Actors' Shakespeare Project through June 4, 2017, at the Multicultural Arts Center at 41 Second Street, Cambridge, MA. Tickets are available at actorsshakespeareproject.org or by phone at (866) 811-4111 .

Cast: Jake Athyal (Lysander); Steven Barkhimer (Bottom); Elle Borders (Hermia); Monica Giordano (Helena); Equiano Mosieri (Oberon/Thesius); Sarah Newhouse (Puck); Paula Plum (Titania); Mac Young (Demetrius). Cellist: Rob Bethel.

Creative Team: Director: Patrick Swanson; Set Design: Eric Levenson; Lighting Design: Deb Sullivan; Costume Design: Jessica Pribble; Composer and Sound Design: David Reiffel; Props and Puppet Design: Elizabeth Rocha; Stage Manager: Marsha Smith; Production Manager: Deb Sullivan; Assistant to the Director: Lydia Barnett Mulligan.


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