Regional Reviews: St. Louis
This Palpable Gross Play/A Kind-Of Midsummer Night's Dream
But who'd have thought you could turn A Midsummer Night's Dream inside out, starting with the tradesmen (Peter Quince, Snug, Tom Snout, Francis Flute, and the overbearing Nick Bottom) struggling to stage a short play for the duke, which (normally) comes after Shakespeare's own love comedy has played out, with its four mixed-up lovers.
Instead we begin with that rehearsal part, which drags a lot. You really will believe these are inept actors locked in a doomed struggle with Meisner, Stanislavski, and the whole concept of theater itself. It's like the Mike Leigh film Topsy Turvy without all the fascinating quirks and human conflicts, before either show turns to something shimmering.
Halfway in, the mechanicals will transform into Lysander and Hermia, and Demetrius and Helena (and an ass), all cast into chaos by the fairy Puck (here, a scary butler played by Ross Rubright). He will put the tradesmen under a spell, but first recites a cringe-inducing list of the side effects of a popular sleep medicine (Lunesta), and later repeats those drug warnings like an anachronistic incantation. The side effects become the set-up that allows the mechanicals to wake up as thrilling romantic characters.
And yet, there's just not enough sharp conflict (internal conflict would be the easiest to add in) in the first half. On stage, Kristen Strom as Peter Quince directs the rustic tradesmen in the Romeo and Juliet-like story of Pyramus and Thisby. Then, the rustics wake up from a deep sleep, and from that point on, it's nothing but great, raging conflict as Ms. Strom becomes a mad Helena (thanks to a smoking lantern version of Lunesta) and we blast off into theater paradise.
Andre Eslamian is a very fine Bottom, first a "power bottom" toward the other actors, and later enduring a hideous bout of the "actor's nightmare" in the second half. Victoria Thomas (as the goddess Titania) shows herself to be a master of high comedy throughout, opposite the physically "Puck-ish" Spencer Lawton as the god Oberon. Delightfully, in this version, Oberon is the one who falls madly in love with Bottom. And the curtain call transforms all the lovers into strange beasts. (There's a frequent musical reference here to the movie The Shining, so maybe they're all just staying in Room 237 at the Overlook Hotel).
It may also be that Kayla Ailee Bush is just too good at playing badly, adding to our hopelessness in that first half, though she's outstanding in the second, changed into the humiliated Hermia. Anthony Kramer Moser undergoes an equally antipodal transformation as Snug, who becomes the desperate Lysander, opposite Ms. Strom. However, it's easier to enjoy Joshua Mayfield (Tom Snout and later Demetrius) in the first half, before the revel's run, when everyone's acting style is turned up to eleven.
The show is highly recommended, especially for the pedigree of its writing and production staff, who together or in various official combinations (including the separate company "Equally Represented Arts," or "ERA") have brought us such unforgettable shows as Trash Macbeth, The Residents of Craigslist, and Brontë Sister House Party. Though you might grow weary, in this case, before the magic really begins.
This Palpable Gross Play/A Kind-Of Midsummer Night's Dream runs through September 2, 2023, at the Chapel on Alexander, 6238 Alexander Drive (just south of Washington University), St. Louis MO. For tickets and information please visit www.satestl.org.