For its season premiere, Brave Spirits Theatre is staging modernized takes on two Elizabethan plays in repertory and encouraging audiences to see both at once. Each cast member takes on an assortment of roles big and small—plus dancing, fight scenes, and the occasional musical instrument—in the course of a single day. So who is the braver spirit: the company, for mounting this task, or the audience members, who set aside an afternoon and evening for black-box Shakespeare?
Turns out both productions are solid, but for different reasons. If your time is limited, go with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s silliest, sweetest comedies and the braver and more exhilarating of the two reimaginings. Director Jessica Aimone brings the same small-space, high-concept vibe here that she did to her recent Tiny House Plays. She opens with Athens’ Hippolyta (Jacqueline Chenault) singing Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” around a maypole. The barefoot actors, wearing simple bright pastels, don masks and spangles to play the bumbling fairies and shed them to play the humans who fall under their spells. They flirt constantly, play with colorful streamers, and chase each other through the audience. It’s a hip slumber party.
Midsummer remains perhaps the funniest play ever written about narcoleptics frolicking in the woods, and its dreamy elasticity lends itself well to modernist tinkerings. Everything Aimone adds to the work also adds to its absurdity: a big New Wave song-and-dance number, a lascivious fairy queen (Chenault again) who smooches her subjects on the lips, and a thorough queering of Puck (Anderson Wells), the mischief-making woodland fairy. Aimone also plays up the free-flowing sexuality of the text, with all those couples’ switcheroos and role reversals. Puck introduces himself while lowering a male fairy’s head to his crotch, and the pompous actor-turned-donkey-man Bottom (Kelly Elliott) is gender-swapped. (She does something very funny and unexpected once her transformation is undone.)
Amber A. Gibson is heartbreaking as Helena, whose hopeless love for Demetrius (David Mavricos) is returned twofold after Puck meddles in the leading men’s desires. There’s great comedy as two men fall over themselves for a woman they couldn’t be bothered with two minutes ago. But there are also tears, as Gibson turns Helena’s utter disbelief into raw hurt upon assuming she is the butt of a cruel joke.
The choice to revolve Midsummer around Helena and the female Bottom is a smart update. It’s also in keeping with the spirit of Brave Spirits, which seeks “to address the disparity of the female presence in classical theatre,” according to one of its mission statements. Midsummer is fertile ground for this sort of reimagining; after all, preaching fidelity to the text is a fool’s errand when the play presents itself as a goof anyway. When the amateur theater troupe performs its hysterical play-within-a-play in the last act, and the watching protagonists make Mystery Science Theater-esque barbs from the audience, Brave Spirits and the Bard are hand-in-hand, laughing off any pretentions. This is frivolous forest fun; just go with it.
The maypole and streamers are still out and Hippolyta still sings “White Wedding” at the outset of The Two Noble Kinsmen, the company’s second repertory offering. Hippolyta and Theseus (Ian Blackwell Rogers) are still the masters of their domain (both Kinsmen and Midsummer are set in Theseus’ Athens), and characters are still falling in rapturous love with alarming speed. But that’s where the links to Midsummer end. In Kinsmen, a rarely produced 1634 collaboration between Shakespeare and one of his contemporaries, John Fletcher, two cousins are captured by enemy forces. Behind bars, they spy and instantly desire Emilia, the queen’s sister, vowing to fight each other to the death over her if necessary.
Adapting Kinsmen, with its shifting tones and narrow scope, presents a tougher challenge than Midsummer. The work, based on Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” holds to a more rigid, less madcap formula than its woodland-sprite counterpart. Even so, director Charlene V. Smith’s production feels comparatively stagnant, an odd mix of flat soliloquies and bumbling comedy with few flourishes. Smith’s use of pop songs is also less invigorating than in Midsummer, though she cleverly integrates them into the proceedings, mostly emerging from the mouth of a woman who has gone mad. All hail the insanity-induced anachronism.
Carolyn Kashner’s strong performance as Emilia carries echoes of her turn as The Girl in American Century Theater’s recent take on The Seven Year Itch: bubbly, yet plainly exhausted with men she doesn’t know throwing their lives away over her. Smith, who is also Brave Spirits’ artistic director, devotes her director’s notes to Emilia’s plight, linking it to Hollaback’s recent viral video about catcalling, but that connection doesn’t materialize on stage. At one point, a maid hints that Emilia may have interests on her mind besides men, but for the most part, the kinsmen go about their feats of masculinity without much theatrical commentary on whether their efforts are justified.
In place of dramaturgical innovations, Kinsmen becomes an actors’ showcase. Mavricos and Willem Krumich, as the cousins Arcite and Palamon, form a terrific display of male bonding. Though the fact that they’re fighting over the hand of a woman neither has spoken to lends their quarrel a Midsummer-esque absurdity, there’s real emotion when Mavricos and Krumich suit each other up while preparing to duel: They’re tearing apart familial bonds that still matter to them. Better still is Jenna Berk, playing the jailer’s daughter, who frees Palamon out of love but is driven insane when he refuses to return her affections. Shakespeare and Fletcher declined to give this character a name, which only adds to the chilling nature of Berk’s performance: She cries and sings in her own universe, often abused by the other characters in her precarious state, lamenting how little her love—indeed, her very existence—seems to change the world around her.
The performances alone make Kinsmen an agreeable bookend to Midsummer, if not an essential Shakespeare’s Day Out. But Brave Spirits hopes to repeat its repertory experiment in future seasons if things go well, and there’s enough potential here to make that an exciting proposition. Just as the plays are linked by the extraordinary efforts their heroes will make for love, so too will this project live or die by the lengths D.C. audiences will go for their love of the Bard.
1231 Good Hope Road, SE. $20 single show; $30 both shows in one day. (202) 631-6291. bravespiritstheatre.com
Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this review misidentified one of the characters in The Two Noble Kinsmen as Zach Roberts playing Pirithous. The author was actually referring to Willem Krumich as Palamon.