A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tony Simotes. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
The Mechanicals: Jonathan Epstein, Malcom Ingram, Alexander Sovronsky, Robert Lohbauer, Annette Miller, Johnny Lee Davenport; photo: Kevin Sprague
"With cunning hast though filch'd my daughter's heart. . ."
Stolen hearts are all the rage. Director Tony Simotes, with a genial stroke of genius, has stolen all our hearts as he transplants Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" into New Orleans in the heart of its own jazz age. So many subtle changes have been made as to beguile us into thinking the play we came to see must still be in there somewhere and - if we let him be our guide - we find everything we love and a great deal more. Not that there aren't some major changes as well; the verbal improvisations of Puck, the Robin Goodfellow of Fairyland, include such things as "Don't forget the fabric softener," a witticism that gets its laugh even though it is, itself, outside the scope of the era in which the play is now set.
I have heard people complain about the time and place changes in this version and I must confess that Simotes taking liberties avoided the one thing that might have made a difference for those folks who object to the changes. Had he changed the word "Athens" (which is spoken too often to even count) to "N'Awlins" the play would make more sense, especially to the uninitated who must find the allusions to ancient Greece hard to grasp within the visual sense of the play.
That said, the move to southern America in the early 1930s works well for the characters and for the plot. I applaud the innovation here. It works. The mis-mated many who become the must-mated are beautifully cast and the mixture of real world and fairy world is still one of the most alluring combinations Shakespeare ever created.
In reality there are three levels of humanity here. Titania, Oberon, Puck and the fairies form a singular level with their abilities to be unseen and unheard and yet affect the reactions of humans. The society folk, including the moneyed and their minions, take center stage for most of the play. The Mechanicals, or working-class men (and woman) who contrive an entertainment for their betters to celebrate a marriage comprise the third level. Simotes' brilliance and strength seem to be in play in the casting of these three distinct groups.
As the young lovers whose place in the hierarchy of New Orleans include Lysander, played to the half naked hilt by David Joseph, Hermia, played to the very edge of vulgar slapstick comedy by Kelly Galvin, Helena, played with gusto instead of the usual self-pity by Cloteal L. Horne, and Demetrius, played by Colby Lewis with a personal sense of humor and humility that is utterly charming. Annette Miller plays Egeus, Hermia's mother with a Southern charm that could easily take Atlanta. Rocco Sisto is tall, gracious and magnanimous as Theseus and his ladylove, Hippolyta, is portrayed with stiff-backed grace by Merritt Janson. This is a wonderful group of actors to play these wonderful people.
For the kingdom of the fairies Sisto moves into the overbearing and overwhelming role of Oberon whileJanson takes on his consort, Titania. Both create wondrous characters who may not fly or have wings, but whose ethereal ethers are constant and visible. Michael F. Toomey takes on the role of Puck as though he were an infant grown into a man's body without the sensibility of an adult anywhere in evidence. Think Mickey Rooney (a fabulous Puck, by the way) played by any number of modern-day film comics. This level is cemented by several fairies in hair and costumes that bring to mind the illustrations of Gustave Dore more than any other artist. This level of the play is also highly enjoyable.
Perhaps the most wonderful casting coup pulled off by the director is the casting of The Mechanicals. Stalwarts of Shakespeare and Company, actors who, collectively, have played the leading roles in everything from Coriolanus and Titus Andronicus to Golde Mair and Maria Callas, play the goofiest set of characters in any of Shakespeare's plays. This group perform, ultimately, a classic Greek tragedy, Pyramus and Thisbe, in celebration of the weddings of their superiors. They are Robert Lohbauer as Snout who potrays the wall and its chink; Malcolm Ingram whose Starveling plays the role of Moonshine, a character whose few lines are constantly trampled by the indignant on-stage audience; Jonathan Epstein as Quince, the director, whose New Orleans accent is comic perfection and who wears a wig you won't want to miss; Alexander Sovronsky as Flute whose awkward femininity makes him a winsome and winning Thisbe; Johnny Lee Davenport as Bottom who not only gets to strut his eogistic stuff as Pyramus, but who is also transformed by Puck into a perfect ass of a man, a man in donkey head, hooves and tail; Annette Miller as a cigar-smoking Snug, hips covered in a piano shawl, who takes on the central role of Lion. You don't want to miss this gang as they rape two classics in a single evening and have a ball doing it and provide the audience with more moments of rare Shakespearian fun. If Simotes had produced and directed only their scenes it would have been a triumph for the director. However, as things stand he has made the most of a very excellent ensemble.
The show is beautifully designed by Travis George (sets), Deborah A. Brothers (costumes), Matthew E. Adelson (lights), Alexander Sovronsky (music and sound) with movement directed by Barbara Allen. Simotes's support team have given him a show to be proud of as he and this company move into their next new phase of operations. It is to be hoped that Tony Simotes will not be overlooked, will retain his artistic controls and will continue to give us innovative and delectable treats like this one.
David Joseph and Michael F. Toomey; photo: Kevin Sprague
Opening, Act One; photo: Kevin Sprague
Rocco Sisto as Oberon; photo: Kevin Sprague
A Midsummer Night's Dream plays in repertory at the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare and Company, located at 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through August 30. For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.