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Style’s the watchword at the Folger Theatre, where Joe Banno introduces the umpteenth local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a smart little dumb show that shorthands all you really need to know about the comedy’s characters, and where most of the usual flash and magic has been exchanged for a dash of Hollywood-style fairy dust. And who knew that all those other productions had been cutting the Act 2 dream ballet?
They hadn’t been doing any such thing, of course, because that musical-comedy convention, here a cheery little riff on a Warner Bros. chestnut called “The Girl at the Ironing Board,” is Banno’s own interpolation. As it happens, it’s one of the lesser contributions to the reupholstered-Shakespeare library he’s been building over the last decade or so at the Folger, where he sometimes keeps himself busy when he’s not being the City Paper’s opera critic: Banno’s laundry-inspired movie-musical homage, together with a handful of other song-and-dance interludes sprinkled throughout this art deco update of the familiar Athenians-amid-the-fairies plot, puts a serious drag on the otherwise brisk pace of the Folger production. Because really, a Joan Blondell lip-sync is still a lip-sync, no matter how adorable the shirts-on-a-line choreography, and a three-minute lip-sync can pretty much be counted on to drain even the sprightliest stage show of its momentum.
But how does a director get from the Bard to Busby Berkeley in the first place? With a conceit that, early on, finds Midsummer’s squabbling nobles—here they’re denizens of a glamorous Nick and Nora world, rendered in ebony and chrome and sheath dresses by designers Erhard Rom and Kate Turner-Walker—trying to patch up their differences over a picture show in Duke Theseus’ handsomely equipped private screening room: When they doze off midway through the movie, the scene’s set pretty neatly for the “dream and fruitless vision” soon to be engineered by the petulant fairy king Oberon. (You remember, all that pranksterish frolicking in the woodlands, with the ass-headed workingman and the drug-addled pairs of lovers and whatnot.)
Banno tightens up his tweaks by turning the “rude mechanicals” into employees at the Theseus family compound, not merely residents of the duke’s city-state; the biggest eyebrow-raiser, at least for purists, will be his decision to demote the sternly paternal Egeus (the one who, at the top of the play, wants to put his rebellious daughter Hermia to death for dating the wrong fellow) from prosperous freeman to the duke’s butler, and to conflate his part with that of Snout the tinker, to boot. The ’30s setting and Egeus’ new status as a member of the servant class pretty much makes nonsense of that legalistic subplot—but brush that aside, because the scornful, hyper-proper reserve of Ralph Cosham’s superbly tart Egeus is one of this production’s great pleasures.
Marcus Kyd and Tim Getman are substantial assets, too, supplying all manner of slapstick physicality as the rival lovers who first chase Egeus’ daughter, the fair Hermia (an ethereal Briel Banks)—and then, under the influence of Puck’s magic, compete just as madly for the previously spurned Helena. Catherine Flye turns in a sweetly pie-eyed Peter Quince; David Marks makes a less boisterous Nick Bottom than some, though he’s developed an entertaining little donkey’s laugh for the character’s recovery period, and among the supporting players, Bob Barr makes the Snug-gliest lion ever.
The show’s chiefest delight, though, would have to be Stephanie Burden’s gawky-charming Helena—and that’s saying something, because Banno’s percolated Puck is Kate Eastwood Norris, that reliably inventive comedian. Norris finds any number of hilariously specific gags for the lovelorn, loose-limbed mischief-maker; it’s a goofy, funny Puck but not an emotionally rich one. (And Banno hints, with a bit of byplay involving an unrequited something between Norris’ Puck and John Lescault’s imperious Oberon, that he’d like their relationship to have at least a little tang of poignancy.)
Burden, whose part offers just as much comic fodder (“Use me but as your spaniel” is a particular riot here), has access as well to plentiful opportunities for pathos—she’s genuinely wronged, Helena is, and when she’s not scheming she’s hurting—and the actress speaks Shakespeare’s lines as if she were creating them anew, registering emotions with an arresting quicksilver agility that can be downright gorgeous when the moment’s just right. She speaks some of Shakespeare’s lines, anyway—this director’s cut is a fairly ruthless one, and even with those misbegotten musical sequences the play clocks in at roughly two hours, intermission included.
The big problem with those sequences, aside from their rhythms, is the eccentric sound design Neil McFadden has provided: The recorded singing voices might as well be coming from another county, so thoroughly are the cast members removed from the tunes they’re supposedly warbling. Doubtless this is deliberate; the Folger crew is hardly incompetent, and Banno probably means these moments to feel as disconnected as the transparently overdubbed production numbers in the ’30s Hollywood tuners he’s paying such fond homage to. Fair enough, but a bad call well executed is still a bad call—and this collection of bad calls keeps bringing an otherwise sure-footed production to its knees.
That said, Banno’s certainly isn’t the most graceless Midsummer I’ve seen—that honor would go to the Washington Shakespeare Company’s squashed little sugarplum of a Christmas-themed production back in 2002. It’s not even the clumsiest Midsummer I’ve seen at the Folger (that would be the combat-booted, leather-trimmed abomination from Shenandoah Shakespeare that visited the season before that).
In fact it’s rather nice, all in all—if you don’t mind it stopping now and again for a song.CP