The Puck Stops Here: Alex Mills offers a sinuous, superior take on the sprite.
The Puck Stops Here: Alex Mills offers a sinuous, superior take on the sprite.

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Quick: What’s the heart of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

That warring-immortals throwdown, with an estranged fairy king and his queen trading barbs about the forgeries of jealousy? A fine scene but a fleeting one—and it’s part of the plot foundation, not the payoff.

The woodland chase, with those matched pairs of willful Athenian youths and the crossed-wires comedy that ensues when a mischievous Puck applies his floral love-hex to the wrong young man? Fun, sure, and plenty antic in the Synetic Theater’s lively, words-not-necessary adaptation—but oddly enough, not very important in the end: All that nonsense gets sorted out in the Weddings “R” Us finale a classic comedy demands.

Some will argue for Bottom’s dream speech—you know, the one in which that malaprop-prone weaver wakes from a night that’s involved both passion and humiliation, announcing that he’s had “a most rare vision,” the marvels of which “the eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen.” And granted, a writer who takes a working-class rube and offers him a glimpse—for one brief speech—of the universe’s entire capacity for wonder has done something both movingly generous and breathtakingly cruel.

But me, I’m of the Pyramus-and-Thisby school. Too often staged as an afterthought, a coda tacked onto an already long evening, it’s a bit of comic byplay—in which Bottom and his clueless blue-collar cohorts stage a monumentally ill-chosen play to honor their city’s just-married duke—that nonetheless contains what can be Midsummer’s most thrilling moment. An embarrassed boy, dressed ridiculously as a bereaved-girl character, mourns a dead lover in preposterous language that strains for poetry and misses by a mile.

And when it’s played just right, with a deft actor and a director who gets that this moment is about the fundamental dignity of every human, however small or silly—that’s when that boy becomes Thisby, and poor hammy Nick Bottom becomes the tragically slaughtered Pyramus, and for an instant rank and taste don’t matter, and art is life distilled, and everything is good and true.

Why does it matter? Why go on so? Because Synetic’s astonishing new Midsummer manages to take that moment and elevate it further—a genuine surprise, even knowing the company’s strengths. Adapters Paata Tsikurishvili and Ben Cunis, not content with the genial humanist glow Shakespeare baked into the scene, have dared to graft on another layer, a twist lifted whole-cloth from Twelfth Night or As You Like It and applied here as a poultice to soothe poor Bottom’s psychic scars. It’s audacious, it’s presumptuous, and it’s got the potential for wretched excess all over it—and as executed on the sunny Sunday afternoon of the show’s opening weekend, it worked so exquisitely it left me in tears.

There is much other magic besides, of course: Synetic’s reputation for expressive stagecraft is sufficiently established, and its movement-driven style enough of a company signature, that there’s not much point in retailing descriptions of how the Tsikurishvilis (director Paata and his choreographer-wife Irina) take Shakespeare’s poetry and make it physical.

Suffice it to say, emphatically, that they do. And that while certain of the usual tropes—the run-in-place, the liquid slow-motion stalk—will strike some followers as familiar now, Synetic doesn’t have any trouble creating new vocabularies to startle even the most dedicated subscriber.

An example from the opening moments: A dozen hands flutter in a ring, uplit, tongues of fire climbing from campfire to sky. The circle breaks, and the up-lights are revealed to be not stage lights but candles, which levitate—stars moving in the heavens, fairies swarming the Athenian woods.

Soon larger fairies join the dance, and their monarchs undulate out of the darkness in an angular, alien progress. And in another surprising addition, Synetic’s Midsummer shows what Shakespeare’s only tells of: the birth of Puck, sower of discord and unruly fairy henchman. (This adaptation takes that first epithet seriously, conflating Puck with the original’s unseen Indian boy; it’s the fairy queen’s increasing intoxication with him that starts all the mischief here.)

Puck is a showcase of a part in any Midsummer, but in a Synetic staging the opportunities it offers are unsurprisingly exponential, and the Tsikurishvilis have found Alex Mills, a young actor whose apparent lack of bones—either that, or he’s double-jointed at pretty much every vertebra—makes him an absolute natural in the role. (This is Mills’ first big part for Synetic, and I’d bet it won’t be his last.)

Philip Fletcher, the puckish Mercutio of Synetic’s Romeo and Juliet, turns in another winsomely exotic performance as the fairy king Oberon, decked out in a set of chitinous linebacker’s pads and not much else. Irina Tsikurishvili is his opposite number, masked and devilish as Titania. An ensemble swarms, green and gold and gossamer, around them, courtiers at their gatherings and foot-soldiers in their skirmishes.

And balancing all that strange splendor? A set of gut-crampingly funny scenes for Bottom (Irakli Kavsadzse) and his Rude Mechanical buddies, staged in high Marx Brothers style and accompanied, as any good silent-movie slapstick should be, by live music courtesy of Constantine and Levan Lortkipanidze.

It’s worth noting that these scenes can play pretty damn tediously, and not at all briefly, in productions that content themselves merely with the lines Shakespeare gave the players. Against the odds—without words, in a play that’s every bit as much about word-play as about wonder—the magic-makers at Synetic Theater have managed to make them every bit the laugh-riot they deserve to be.