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Oh, what fools these mortals be, allowing two versions of the same play to overlap by three weekends. Don’t believe it. For a new work, this could prove disastrous; for a high school staple that’s more than 20 years old (give or take four centuries), it couldn’t matter less. Seeing two Midsummers on the same midwinter day—WSC Avant Bard’s shadow puppet-optimized version, staged at the former elementary school known as the Gunston Arts Center, and the Folger Theatre’s less idiosyncratic, bigger-budget, musical-theater-inflected take—is an exercise in interpretation, even more than any performance of Shakespeare necessarily is already.
While Midsummer is never named among its author’s so-called “problem plays,” it’s still got a big one: The central conflict—a series of magickal roofie-ings wherein two pairs of randy young humans and a fairy queen are all made to lust after partners they wouldn’t choose while sober—gets sorted by the end of Act IV. This has the effect of making many a Midsummer Night’s Dream seem to linger into the following morning, and sometimes until almost Labor Day. The play feels like it ought to end some three- or four-hundred lines before you’re actually permitted to leave without causing a minor scandal.
Act V is the “merry and tragical, tedious and brief” play-within-the-play of Pyramus and Thisbee, as performed by the “rude mechanicals,” the hapless troupe of amateurs whose futile rehearsals punctuate the main story of the bewitched lovers. On the page, this climactic performance never has the weight of inevitability behind it, the way the grand finale of most subsequent stories about underdog performing artists or athletes do. So on the stage, Pyramus and Thisbee had better be the funniest part of the show. If it isn’t, why are we all still here?
Aaron Posner directed the Folger’s handsome new version, and its cast is spilling over with marvelous actors with whom he’s worked many times before: His spouse, Erin Weaver, plays Puck, the servant of Fairy King Oberon, and the character registers as much as an enforcer in this telling than as an imp. Maybe that’s because Weaver’s costume (by Devon Painter) exposes Weaver’s arms and midriff, toned and rippling enough under Jessy Belsky’s orange-and-purple lights to suggest that Puck’s regimen of pwning trespassers in the enchanted forest still leaves lots of time for pilates. Eric Hissom is Oberon, her boss, and on him the sleeveless gypsy look, replete with eyeliner and a head scarf, suggests Keith Richards (speaking of genius Britons who died in the 1600s).
Holly Twyford is Bottom, the Mechanicals’ resident ham, creating the amusing spectacle of a great actor playing a lousy one. Finally, as Lysander, the young suitor whom Hermia loves though her father wants her to marry Demetrius instead (and in station and temperament, there’s no difference between them, so far as we can tell), you have Adam Wesley Brown, who was sublime in Posner’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Folger last spring.
This all-star squad can’t help but stick the landing—that vestigial Act V—with more vigor than their counterparts at WSC do. Posner never met a Shakespeare play he didn’t think he could improve with music: After sprinkling a few brief song breaks throughout the evening (Kim Wong’s Helena makes her entrance singing Adele’s “Someone Like You”) he finishes by breaking the fourth wall of the fourth wall, having the three couples join the Rude Mechs for a literally dancing-in-the-aisle finale. It helps that the ensemble is fronted by Weaver, a veteran musical theater lead. But long before that, Brown turns the famous consolation “The course of true love never did run smooth” into a ballad addressed to Hermia (Betsy Mugavero). He plucks out a melody on the ukulele but sings with such tenderness that I’m inclined to forgive his choice of instrument. Andre Pluess is credited with “Original Music” while Sarah Pickett with “Sound Design and Original Music.” Whoever composed the songs, the show certainly sounds sublime, from the voice-throwing and vocal impersonation effects Puck uses to confuse Lysander and Demetrius in the forest right down to the peaceful chirping of the crickets.
While the production never quite feels whole, individual bits of it are inspired: Painter gives the Mechanicals a different look every time they show up, for example. At first, five out of six of them are dressed in school uniforms, plaid skirts and blazers. At their next appearance they look like they’re modeling some designer’s winter collection. When Twyford-as-Bottom is transformed into an ass, Painter gives her actual hooves to go with her foot-high furry ears and big buck teeth. She also brays a too-brief version of “No One Is Alone,” from Into the Woods. But she’s nearly upstaged by Megan Graves’ hilarious performance as Snug, the retiring and almost-mute Mechanical who’s been terribly miscast as… The Lion. Graves’s stage-whisper is a marvel; she suggests someone for whom speaking is traumatic while still allowing the audience to hear her clearly—or as clearly as we need to, at any rate.
In the WSC production, Oberon, Titania, and all the other faeries save for Daven Ralston’s Puck, are portrayed by shadow puppets in the Wayang Kulit tradition native to Indonesia and Malaysia. (Alex Vernon made the puppets.) Making the puppets as the “Mechanicals” would be a better conceptual joke, but Baker made the right casting choice. A half-dozen scrims surround designer Debra Kim Sivigny’s stage in the Gunston’s black box Theatre Two. The way these shadows can be made rapidly to swell or shrink simply by having the puppeteer move nearer to or farther from the light is a trick that seems all the more magical for its simplicity.
Musical director James Bigbee Garver corrals several members of the cast into a miniature Gamelan orchestra, performing an original score on xylophone, bass, and various tin cans and found objects. I might’ve imagined the cue in which they perform an acoustic arrangement of Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days,” but I don’t think so, because contemporaneous pop hits announce the arrival of Zach Brewster-Geisz’s Bottom: the boom box on his push cart plays A-Ha’s “Take on Me” and Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” both from 1985—practically Elizabethan times.
While one doubts there’s any political payload to be gleaned from gender-flipped casting in a show wherein one character is transformed into a donkey, I’ll point out that Baker casts Toni Rae Salmi as Egeus, the bummer of a dad who commands his daughter Hermia (the ebullient Jenna Berk, who’s even better than the other Hermia) to marry the suitor he’s chosen for her. Otherwise she must face the sword—or a life of chastity. They amount to the same thing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that introduced many familiar phrases to our lexicon, but not the one that best captures its divine and youthful enchantment: If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.
201 East Capitol St. SE. $35–$75. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu.
2700 South Lang Street, Arlington. Pay what you will, min. $10. (703) 418-4808. wscavantbard.org.