By Tristan Lejeune
There’s nothing dreamlike about the Midsummer Night’s Dream going on now at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
There’s plenty of talent and commitment up on stage, but too little creativity — and far too strong a lean on fairy-dust whimsy — to remind you of any of your dreams. Still, the production, which feels made of equal parts candy and silk, could be forgiven and even enjoyed were it not for a series of horrible directorial decisions in its final minutes that sends one Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies right off the rails.
The cast is tight, and lights (Jesse Belsky) and sound (Sarah Pickett) are solid, but the normally reliable Aaron Posner has directed things into a bit of a mess. His program notes say he is “attempting to find small, new gifts” in the script, but the search has gone astray.
Watching everyone scamper around the forest is reliably entertaining, and no one struggles with the language. The aforementioned whimsical touch is cloying, but several actors survive it.
Tips of the hat to all four of our young lovers. Hermia (Betsy Mugavero), Helena (Kim Wong), Lysander (Adam Wesley Brown) and Demetrius (Desmond Bing) are fresh and fun, no more — or less — silly than they should be an any given moment.
Further kudos Holly Twyford as an archly hammy Bottom. One of the more original strokes here that definitely does work is the transposition of the workmen/players into an all-girl, after-school thespian troupe, with Bottom and Peter Quince (Richard Ruiz) as chaperones. Twyford earns every laugh, one of the performances good enough to make you wish she was in a different production.
The set is heavy on dressing but low-impact, like a bad salad; the costumes are revealing but not terribly imaginative; and the use of anachronistic songs (from sources including Adele and Into the Woods) is symptomatic of the disease that kills the show. All three scenery, outfits, and musical numbers seem to get in the actors’ way more than help them out. This production is so over-stuffed there isn’t even room for a cadre of fairies — lights and some slight-of-hand will have to do.
Oh yeah: tone down the magic tricks, please. Multiple cast members are quite good at it, but it wears thin as a device.
For some reason Puck (Erin Weaver) has been given the subtext of being in love with Oberon (Eric Hissom). Why? This is one of several bits of business that feels really tacked-on because it has nowhere to go.
When all the spells have been lifted and everyone married right and proper, one of this Midsummer’s fatal errors transpires when everyone gathers for the play within a play and the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisby is played straight. Shakespeare has written a hilarious bit of self-parody, and while Twyford and Dani Stoller as Flute are capable of dramatic deaths, it’s a tonal misfire and it stops the action cold.
Things get far worse, however, when the final moments of “almost fairy time” are given over to a big, all-hands musical number about how everyone should follow their dream. It’s cheesy to the point of embarrassment, and it runs roughshod right over Puck’s closing “that you have but slumb’red here” monologue. Oberon and Titania lose their farewell entirely for a song that might believably have been cut from High School Musical.
All of this is particularly disappointing for theatergoers who caught Folger’s most recent offering, a rich Pericles, and even more so for those who saw the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s excellent Midsummer last year, a study in less-is-more. This space and this show deserve better.
These shadows have offended.