As much as it's possible to be annoyed by gratuitous, purposeless modernizations of Shakespeare's plays, I must say after witnessing numerous zany riffs, A Midsummer Night's Dream stands up to the abuse better than anything else from the Bard's quill. The story is very silly to begin with, begging for slapstick blandishments, and it already weaves together three highly incongruous groupings of characters.
Rude mechanicals, including a tinker and a tailor, commingle with invisible spirits of the woods, pre-eminently the fairy king Oberon and his impish servant Puck. Centerstage are a quartet of Athenian aristocrats, including two romantic refugees fleeing the realm of the mythical King Theseus. So if Shakespeare Carolina, in their current production at Johnson Hall, tosses in a snip of the Gilligan's Island jingle and a bedtime reading of Goodnight Moon, what's the harm?
Director David Wohl, Winthrop's University's dean of visual and performing arts, has ladled numerous absurd touches onto Shakespeare's magical masterwork in his ShakesCar debut. In the climactic tussle, when all the Athenians' affections have been turned topsy-turvy by the fairy spells, Puck glides in with a couple of tubs of popcorn so that he and Oberon can better savor the action. And when dueling paladins Lysander and Demetrius square off in mortal combat, the weapons they wield are tennis rackets.
From his first entrance in the opening of Act 2, Dennis DeJesus plays Puck on roller skates. Perhaps to honor the shift in the character's name from Puck to Robin Goodfellow in Shakespeare's script, Wohl decrees a couple of radical costume changes for DeJesus at the end of Act 5. No wonder the Winthrop student fairly well steals the show from the elders in the cast.
You might find freshness in Wohl's approach to the royals where I find perversity. Chris Freeman brings a gentrified dignity to Theseus, not at all objectionable for a monarch pronouncing judgment on two lovebirds who will steal away with tacky luggage. But when Freeman rejoins us as Oberon, not an unusual doubling, he is wild and crude, with a mop of a wig instead of a crown. Blackjack Mulligan would have been a more regal, elegant king. As for Laura Ann Dougherty, she's contrary enough as Oberon's headstrong Queen Titania, and she dotes on the transformed Bottom nearly to the extreme I'd wish. But her stints as Theseus' fiancée, Queen Hippolyta, are riddled with a patrician dyspepsia that altogether deglamorizes her Amazonian lineage.
Of course, the iconic image of Midsummer is the transformed Bottom. ShakesCar founder Chris O'Neill brought a little less gusto and ego to the weaver than I anticipated, so when the time came for Puck to equip him with the head of an ass, the fact that it obscured O'Neill's face entirely may be a blessing in disguise. Although facial expression was lost, O'Neill's lines and brayings come through clear as a bell.
The lovers and the mechanicals are nearly pure delight. Kacy Southerland is more than sufficiently peevish as the spurned Helena, but she needs to radiate more of the charm that won Demetrius in the first place. Nathan Kelly Rouse as the inconstant Demetrius and Justin Younts as the ardent, intrepid Lysander are perfectly cast and yield well to direction. I'd only encourage them to let their amorousness and antagonism extend spontaneously beyond Wohl's specifications. Megan York as Hermia certainly provides a vivacious example of throwing yourself into a role, slightly tinted with vanity when both the swains adore her and a hilarious hellcat when Helena has stolen their love.
Waddling onto the stage on crutches to direct the mechanicals' presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe, Amanda Liles just may be the funniest Peter Quince that I've ever seen. The massive Norman Burt as the slow-witted joiner Snug and heavily bespectacled Stan Lee as nerdy tinker Snout are also hoots. Wohl doesn't indulge Bottom's hambone tendencies quite sufficiently in staging the farcical tragedy, but I adore how he treats the fourth wall. When Bottom, playing Pyramus, trespasses across the unspoken border between stage and spectators, the newlyweds all recoil in terror!
Biff Edge lavishes all his set design artistry on the woods, where a gigantic full moon presides. If only that moon disappeared or flew aloft when Puck read his bedtime story, it would bring down the house. But that's showbiz.
Is it necessary to use curse language when reviewing a children's musical?