A Midsummer Night's Dream
Also see Richard's review of The Children's Hour
The romance comes (as usual) from the combined charm of the defiant, pixie-like girls and the handsome, slightly clueless guysand also from the powerful, magical presence of Michael Juncal as Oberon, king of the fairies. I'm pretty sure his mother must have slept with a first folio under her pillow, because Shakespeare's words just flow out of this Oberon like a river of molten gold. His speeches seem like the one really authentic thing to survive this riotous modern translation, and it just may be that Juncal's lone majestic voice justifies every outlandish, goofy thing done here in Shakespeare's name.
And even though the beauty of the poetry comes from just one man, and the romance comes from just a handful of actors, the comedy proceeds from every single person on stage (and off). It's a surprisingly bright and funny cast from top to Bottom. And stand back, because producer/director Northcott, who has probably gone through this play about a million times in the last umpteen years (although she's really only about 29, I think), has somehow boiled this staging down to one mad chase scene. It's like the old movie Bringing Up Baby, except that here, the gentle, elusive leopard is true love itself.
Then again, maybe there are two leopards here, just like Bringing Up Baby, and the other scary tomcat is the equally elusive 400-year-old poetry itself. But if the entire cast did manage to catch that leopard, it might just prove needlessly fatal for everything they've currently achieved, with all their combined wit. It may not be poetry, but it sure is good, modern, idiosyncratic humor. Maybe it's all just intended as "Shakespeare for people who don't particularly care for Shakespeare."
Njemile Ambonisye is sleek and delicious as Titania, and her mighty Oberon torments her regularly. I had trouble hearing her, though, and Hermia too (the feisty Beth Wickenhauser) in their less angry moments. But the whole thing is visually so simple and clear it almost could be a silent movie. It almost should be a silent movie, when you think all the rambling, half-hearted delivery. I suppose it's what the film critics call "mumblecore": striving for an informal, deeply personal effect. Really, really striving.
Still, Ambonisye and Wickenhauser and the rest do outstandingly well without the verbal filigree. Laura Enstall is perfect as Helena, comically hopeless in her pursuit of Demetrius (the uber-boyish Daniel Hayward). And since both he and heroic-looking Jimmy Krawczyk start out madly in love with Ms. Wickenhauser, Ms. Enstall is adorably bereft, until the gods intervene.
Also, I don't know whywell, okay, I do know whythe mortals are all smartly uniformed for World War I, and the fairies are all dressed for the 1980s punk-rock look, but it's all very appealing. (I think it's because the WWI theme and the punk-rock theme both allow the men to put on some pretty amusing underwear or bumblebee leotards.)
Eric Peters is dashing as Theseus, Jamie Chandler is dour and wry as Hippolyta, his bride, and Shane Bosillo gives the last full measure of fulmination as Hermia's sputtering dad. All the while, the mighty Oberon inflicts more and more slapstick violence on his fairies (strangely appealing thugs in ruined tutus, almost like something out of A Clockwork Orange). The slapstick begins with a bit lifted from Star Wars, where the evil Darth Vader used the Force to choke a non-believer. After that, there are about 20 variations on the theme, and they're all good and perfectly carried off. Eager henchman Joshua Nash Payne (as Puck) is the main victim of all of this, with his "Flock of Seagulls" haircut, and the same great comic energy we saw this summer in The Compleat Works.
I know it's all so dumb, but I couldn't help smiling, even through the seemingly endless Pyramus and Thisby routine at the end. Paul Edwards is wonderful as Bottom, a preening theater diva who takes over the preparations for the wedding panto. It's perfectly understandable when his director (Jaysen Cryer) finally takes to drink. And, in spite of its length, we are happy to put up with their epic romantic drama: doomed to be so ruthlessly ruined, even without the meddling of the gods.
Through October 7, 2012, at the Grandel Theater, between the Fox Theatre and Powell Symphony Hall on Grand Avenue, about a mile north of I-64. For more information got to www.stlshakespeare.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association