There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream has always seemed to me a thing of indestructible charm, but I confess I never expected to see that assessment put so thoroughly to the test as it is in Lee Mikeska Gardner’s strenuously whimsical staging for the Washington Shakespeare Company. Armed with an eager if largely inexperienced cast and an off-putting affection for all things Christmas, she’s put together an evening that pretty much lives down to the company’s press-release claim: “[T]his production would be an ideal way to introduce a child to the wonders of Shakespeare.” Adults, and even those poor younglings who like their theater delivered without a stocking full of winks and nudges, will do well to wait for a version that’s less concerned with seasonal cheer. The conceit begins before the play proper, with cast members milling about the stage, merrily singing off-key carols and pretending to choose parts from a hat. (Don’t believe it: If some actors are still cheating from the script, it’s because Gardner has kept her cast small, and with eight actors rather than the more usual 20-plus, they’re playing two or three roles each.) The musical interpolations continue throughout, though the only one that conjures anything like the play’s usual magic is a spare, guitar-backed “Silent Night” that—along with Marianne Meadows’ icy-white projections of winter-bare trees—efficiently and effectively sets an initial tone of wonder. Would that that mood prevailed (instead of descending rapidly to the farcical) and that all of Gardner’s notions added up as nicely: If she means to make a point, for instance, by suggesting that Barbara Papendorp’s Titania never really succumbs to the mischievous spell that (usually) leaves her smitten with the limelight-hogging, ass-eared malapropagandist Bottom, she might want to do more than hint at it. And thanks, but even if we all think Shakespeare could indeed have been a trifle more direct about Hippolyta’s less-than-consensual engagement to Theseus, putting her in handcuffs probably isn’t the ideal way to suggest an interestingly complicated relationship. Gardner does get good mileage out of the reliably inventive Suzanne Richard, who makes amusingly short work of both Bottom and the fulminating noble(wo)man Egeus. (It’s Richard, by the way, not any of her characters, who wins the evening’s biggest laugh with a snappy non-Shakespearean aside that someone, presumably the excellent dramaturg Cam Magee, has grafted onto the script.) But at the last, this Midsummer is a casualty of too many ideas: You can give it a Christmas-y veneer, you can give it a feminist reading, and you can give it a slapstick gloss, but even with a comedy this durable, you probably shouldn’t try to do all three at once. —Trey Graham