Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Cameron's review of Coriolanus
Midsummer centers around four young Athenians caught up in a love rectangle. Helena loves Demetrius. Demetrius once loved Helena, but now wants to marry Hermia. Hermia's father wants her to marry Demetrius, but she only has eyes for Lysander. Lysander loves Hermia too, but because he does not have her father's approval they must secretly flee the city to be together. In the dark of night all four end up in the woods outside Athens, but they are not alone. Oberon, king of the fairies, and his faithful servant Puck are in the forest making mischief for queen Titania and the whole love-crossed crew. A band of amateur actors hoping to rehearse covertly in the woods also get caught up in the midnight melee.
Rachel Camp puts a 1990s grunge spin on Helena that is oddly appropriate and totally hilarious. Brandon J. Pierce and Sean Close give fresh, high energy performances as Demetrius and Lysander. Along with Taysha Marie Canales as the much sought after Hermia, the quartet kick up a comical whirlwind of quips, barbs, prat falls, and near misses that is wonderfully fast paced and funny. All four actors do double duty as members of the amateur acting troupe practicing in the woods. Pierce and Close give memorable performances as Starvling and Flute, but Dan Hodge brings a Hollywood swagger to the role of bumbling Bottom that is priceless. Sad to say the comedic talent displayed by Hodge and the other rude mechanicals is not enough to keep scenes from becoming tedious. The problem is not a lack of clever readings or well-timed gestures, but rather an excess. It is as though every funny idea floated in rehearsal ended up in the final performance, making it hard for the truly hilarious moments (Hodge and that helmet!) to stand out.
Alex Bechtel's original music and sound design has a similar problem. In some places the musical additions are a great boon to the production. The actors casually sing and play instruments before the performance much as they might have at the Globe Theatre. Helena gives a whiny rendition of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" that is hysterical. Puck's performance for Oberon sets the tone for their relationship (more on that in a second) and melds seamlessly with the text. But in other places Bechtel opts for extended covers where just a few bars of music would suffice, and the production slows to a grinding halt.
Mary Tuomanen is fantastic as playful prankster Puck, exuding an infectious delight as she flits down the aisles, up a ladder, and over the balcony of Paige Hathaway's minimalist set. Lindsay Smiling plays Puck's master King Oberon, but Smiling and Tuomanen's relationship plays less like servant and master and more like old college buddies. Smiling brings out a funny side of Oberon I have not seen in other productions, without sacrificing the character's essential gravitas.
Olivera Gajic's costume designs are bit confusing. Tuomanen's whimsical costume is perfectly timeless from her striped knee-highs right up to her neon blue pixie cut. However, the lithe and graceful Katharine Powell plays Titania in a yellow jumpsuit more appropriate to a 1970s disco than a night in the woods. Smiling's unflattering pants and cuff combination is straight out of Disney's Aladdin. Pierce and Close both wear outfits that could have come from Abercrombie's spring collection. It's not that these costumes are distracting, they are simply not cohesive enough to create a uniform sense of time and place.
Despite the inconsistent pacing, this Midsummer Night's Dream is well worth seeing. Director Matt Pfeiffer breaths fresh life into the immortal bard's much beloved comedy and the talented young cast keeps the audience laughing throughout. With a bit of editing this very good production could easily become something fantastic.
William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Nights Dream runs through April 15th, 2017, on the Arden Theatre Company's F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Old City Philadelphia. For tickets call the box office at 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.