Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Director Joe Banno moves Shakespeare's story into the 1930s of Hollywood fantasy, with the help of a talented cast that shares his love of screwball comedy. Banno envisions Theseus (John Lescault) and Hippolyta (Deborah Hazlett) as the sleek keepers of an Art Deco mansion designed by Erhard Rom, and the magic spell that ensnares his lovers comes from watching a movie: Fred Astaire sings "Wrap your troubles in dreams, and dream your troubles away," and they're off.
Lescault and Hazlett double as Oberon and Titania, the imperious yet impetuous rulers of the fairy world. Kate Eastwood Norris provides spirited support to both couples as starchy Philostrate and a tomboyish Puck.
In keeping with the "country-house weekend" setting of Banno's conception, the "rude mechanicals" with dreams of artistic achievement are the estate's staff, headed by officious butler Egeus Snout (Ralph Cosham). He is also the father of the embattled Hermia (Briel Banks), forced to choose between gawky Lysander (Marcus Kyd), whom she loves, and her father's choice for her, swaggering Demetrius (Tim Getman), for whom lovelorn Helena (Stephanie Burden) yearns.
This is a freewheeling production that takes as much joy in slapstick as it does in Shakespeare's radiant language. As portrayed here, Oberon can command sound effects and background music as easily as he can cause disturbances in the weather, causing characters to suddenly begin lip-synching and pantomiming to recordings from the period. The performances sometimes summon memories of 1930s actors (Burden's dry wit as Helena suggests the wisecracking Eve Arden), and the encounters between the mismatched young couples are hilariously physical.
David Marks, plump and wide-eyed, is ideal as Nick Bottom, the workingman who (with the help of Puck) finds himself transfigured by love and magic. He brings a delicacy to his movement that belies his large frame. In a bit of cross-gender casting, Peterquince, director of the play-within-the-play, is the funny and soulful Catherine Flye, whose attentions to Bottom are unlike what one might find in more typical productions.
Cosham deserves special notice for the way he can demonstrate aggrieved dignity with little more than a pinched look in his eyes. (Actually, to mix Shakespearean references, his performance suggests Malvolio in Twelfth Night.)
The upper-class characters clearly have studied the 1930s movies that inspired Banno: men with slicked-back hair and sleek suits, women in satin gowns or fluttery daytime dresses. The difference between Demetrius and Lysander is as obvious as the former's rakish scarf and the latter's bow tie. Costume designer Kate Turner-Walker deserves a lot of credit, not just for these, but for the "improvised" costumes for the play-within-a-play. (In these people's hands, a wicker wastebasket topped with a feather duster becomes a crown, and fringe from a seat cushion becomes a lion's mane.)