ArtsEmerson: Perchance to "Dream"

The Cast of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
The news was promising: ArtsEmerson’s latest presentation would be Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, in a co-production by Bristol Old Vic (the longest continuously running theatre in Britain) and the Handspring Puppet Company (of South Africa, led by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones), the team that last brought us the Tony-winning “War Horse”. This version of the play, directed by Tom Morris (Artistic Director of the Bristol Old Vic), with astounding Choreography by Laurel Swift, is another creative mix of live actors and puppetry. Advance buzz was that it would be a visual stunner, the comedy perhaps a bit more broadly played than usual, with more than a trace of pure theatrical magic. Happily, that magic is alive and well, in a hilarious and astonishingly brilliant collaboration, easily the best straight play production anywhere in the Boston area this season. The wizards of “War Horse” are at it again, this time focusing their marvelous wands on what continues to be the most popular comedy by the Bard of Avon

For those needing a brush-up on their Shakespeare, herewith is a brief synopsis of the mix-ups and match-ups. In the courtroom of Athenian King Theseus (David Ricardo-Pearce), Hermia (Akiya Henry) refuses to marry Demetrius (Kyle Lima), her father’s choice, despite the law allowing fathers to make their daughters do anything they command; his advice is to get herself to a nunnery. Instead, she flees into the forest with her beloved poet Lysander (Alex Felton), where they run into Helena (Naomi Cranston), Hermia’s best friend, who happens to love Demetrius. At the same time, the woodland fairies are having their own problems, as fairies do. Oberon (Ricardo-Pearce again), king of the fairies, and his queen Titania (Saskia Portway), are out of sorts over her preoccupation with rearing a human boy; he orders his helper Puck (puppeteers Saikat Ahamed, Lucy Tuck and Fionn Gill) to provide a magical flower (the juices of which cause one on waking to fall in love with the first thing one sees). When Puck encounters a group (the Rude Mechanicals) performing a play (headed by the loudmouth Nick Bottom, played by Miltos Yerolemou), he thinks it would be funny to have Queen Titania fall for Bottom, which she does even though Puck has turned Bottom’s head into that of an ass. To make things worse (and more confusing) Puck mistakenly makes Lysander fall for Helena, making Hermia angry; he then makes Demetrius fall for Helena too. Oberon directs Puck to clean up the mess, if it takes him all night (which, with a playing time just shy of three hours with one intermission, it almost does). When all awake, they are in the correct permutations and combinations: Lysander loves Hermia, Demetrius loves Helena, and so on. Oberon reverses the spell on Titania and Bottom, and the royal couple are reunited, while Puck ends with an apology for all his errors. Is this all clear? No matter, it will be.

In the capable hands (and fingers) of the puppeteers and thespians, it’s perfectly clear. With this (you should excuse the expression) dream cast, it’s midsummer indeed, despite the lingering piles of snow outside the theater. The whole cast is pluperfect, and mention should also be made of Colin Michael Carmichael (doubling as Quince and Peaseblossom) and Christopher Keegan (doubling as Philostrate and Cobweb) who complete the list of cast members. Wizardry surrounds them all, from the overall Design by Vicki Mortimer, to the Lighting Design by Philip Gladwell, Sound Design by Christopher Shutt, and fantastic Score by Composer David Price. The many hands responsible for the Costume and Puppetry Design have produced imaginative garb, for example creating Puck by utilizing such items as a blowtorch, garden tools, and a saw. Yet, despite all the wonders, the production does slow down a bit for the play-within-a-play (though they manage to make the best of it), but that’s the fault of the playwright. Even Shakespeare nods.

One might find the treatment of Bottom surprising, since in most productions he ends up with more shreds of dignity. Here, he gets a bit of a bum rap, but suffers no bawdily harm. Yerolemou as Bottom is just plain amazing. You’ll have to see his transformation into an ass to appreciate it; it’s the single funniest and most unforgettable visual image of many a theater season. This truly wondrous concept, and its execution, are just one of the joys that threaten to split one‘s sides permanently. At one point one character slurs another with the insult of being a puppet, one of countless verbal ironies in this incredible production. But oh, how cool these puppets be!

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