Like "Carmen" and "The Nutcracker," the Shakespeare tale of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is such a perennial favorite that it's rare for more than a few years to go by without a nearby production taking place.
While "Hamlet," "Macbeth" and "Romeo and Juliet" offer dramatic heft, "Midsummer" is a light, comedic crowd pleaser, and that's probably why it seems to be performed more often than any other work in William Shakespeare's canon. With so many fun and intriguing ways to stage "Midsummer," perhaps that's why seeing a half-conceived production is so maddening.
In this telling from the conjoined Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare — a joint name has yet to be announced — Jan Powell informs the audience in a director's note that this staging takes place in 1905. As Duke Theseus, John Moon strides onstage dressed like Teddy Roosevelt about to charge San Juan Hill. As Hippolyta, Melissa Johnston Price looks and sounds like the gypsy woman from "The Wolf Man" who warns Lon Chaney Jr. of werewolves.
Powell's note confirms that Theseus is modeled on Roosevelt, but that the betrothed Hippolyta is supposed to be a "wealthy Spanish widow who owned a large plantation in Cuba." Right. This is as far as any comparison or broader point about the Spanish-American War goes, which is just the start of the problems with this ambitious but ultimately flawed staging.
As Shakespeare's play weaves its tale of magic, humor and love, we follow three groups of characters: the nobles Theseus, Hippolyta and the four lovers; the fairy kingdom of Oberon, Titania and Puck; and the commoner "rude mechanicals" such as Bottom and Quince. In the four days leading up to Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding, royals and fairies alike decide to have a bit of fun with their underlings.
On Richard Moxley's well-constructed wooden set, the actors fly about the stage with a physicality that's become a trademark of Powell productions. The cast moves with considerable agility (Kaye Weinstein Gary is credited with "movement"). But when you combine that with Andrew Craig's sound design, the constant clicking noises from the fairies, and the breakneck pace at which actors deliver lines, the show becomes too fast and has too much going on.
The worst speed freaks are the actors portraying the four lovers, Audra Honaker (Hermia), Charley Raintree (Lysander), Maggie Roop (Helena) and Dixon Cashwell (Demetrius). While they get a fair amount of laughs, much of the Bard's language is lost in their haste. This is unnecessary, especially with "Midsummer" being Shakespeare's second-shortest play.
On the plus side, the rude mechanicals are quite funny, and their play-within-a-play production of "Pyramus and Thisbe" is hysterical. This scene often is the highlight of any "Midsummer" staging, and with David White as Bottom, John Mincks as Flute and LaSean Greene as Snout, it comes off marvelously.
Newcomer Raven Lorraine Wilkes brings considerable energy and humor to Puck, but it's unclear if Powell is trying to say something about expansionism by casting a young woman of color to do the bidding of a white male Oberon.
A dancer once told me that anything less than great ballet isn't worth watching, and given this production of "Midsummer," I'm beginning to wonder if the same is true of Shakespeare. S
Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" plays through July 6 at Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road. For information and tickets call 340-0115 or visit henleystreettheatre.org.