A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Folger's A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National Building Museum Credit: B Diliberto

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

One really good idea. That’s all it takes to put on a good production of a William Shakespeare play. 

The Folger Theatre had that one great idea: Stage a slightly abridged, family-friendly version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream inside the magically cavernous great hall of the National Building Museum

The production of Shakespeare’s comedy about feuding fairies who meddle with human lovers was set for the summer of 2020. But then came two years of pandemic-induced delays and a change in the theater’s artistic directors; under new leadership, nearly the entire creative team and cast were replaced. For reasons that remain unclear, only one act and the set designer remain from the planned 2020 production. But what is apparent is this: Too many great ideas (and a few misguided ones) have been layered onto Folger’s production of Midsummer.

Balloons, magic, modern dance! Peggy Lee’s recording of “Fever,” nonbinary fairy kings, and the harmonica! Gender-flipped roles, yards of fluorescent yellow tulle, and Hawaiian shirts for the star of the Rude Mechanicals. 

Lord, what fools these mortals with too many good ideas can be.

From challenging sound design to costuming and casting, there’s so much going on that the wondrously strange experience of seeing Shakespeare in one of D.C.’s most fantastic spaces has gotten lost. This Midsummer could have been a show for D.C. theater record books—instead it’s a charming summer novelty, not the crowning achievement previous leader Janet Alexander Griffin envisioned, nor the red carpet rollout her replacement Karen Ann Daniels likely wanted. (Griffin retired in the spring of 2021, after leading the Folger for four decades.) 

Daniels joined the Folger last October as artistic director after directing the Mobile Unit at New York’s Public Theater. The best Midsummer decision Daniels made was using her connections to reel in Watchman actor (and Public Theater veteran) Jacob Ming-Trent to play Bottom, everyone’s favorite thespian ass-head. 

Last summer, Ming-Trent starred as the chubby knight Falstaff in the Public’s critically hailed adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. “Playing Falstaff, playing a Falstaff set in Harlem? It doesn’t really get any better than this,” Ming-Trent told the New York Times

Onstage in Washington, he’s a gregarious and affable presence. He also depicts Bottom as cruder than the Rude Mechanicals, the amateur troupe putting on a play-within-the-play, are typically portrayed. Ming-Trent grabs his crotch repeatedly and ad-libs jokes about the size of his dick. 

In marketing materials, however, the Folger has stressed that Midsummer at the Building Museum—as part of an annual series of family-friendly summer installations that has also included a giant ball pit—is great for kids. To that end, the rest of the Rude Mechanicals are lovable, harmonic goofballs and the fairies are costumed like low-rent Muppets. The heavily edited production clocks in at 90 minutes. Somebody tell Ming-Trent to stop grabbing his dick.

I say this not to sound prudish—Shakespeare can certainly be a ribald good time—but as an example of the many contradictory artistic choices in this Midsummer. Director Victor Malana Moag, who replaced conceiving director Robert Richmond, rearranged scenes, cut liberally, added contemporary non sequiturs and flipped lines for Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen. It’s Oberon, not Titania who awakes from slumber in love with Bottom, transformed into a half human, half ass. 

This could work! This Oberon is cheekily portrayed as queer, strutting through the forest in a fabulous, flowing fuchsia skirt that Billy Porter should borrow for next year’s Oscars. Oberon and Bottom have an absolutely epic roll in the hay. But by the time Titania rouses her beloved from the spell, she appears more like a cuckold than an empowered woman putting her errant man in his place.

The gender-flipped roles and gender-fluid fairy king—two worthwhile ideas if explored alone—end up canceling each other out. 

Folger’s production also amplifies Shakespeare’s problematic reason the royals are feuding: Oberon desires a young “changeling boy” in the fairy queen’s entourage. The character has no lines, and is rarely portrayed onstage. Regrettably, to contemporary audiences, the scenario sounds like the fairies are engaged in child sex trafficking. 

Synetic Theater’s wonderful, recently staged “wordless” Midsummer smartly cut the changeling boy situation. Washington’s last major Midsummer, mounted by Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2012 and remounted as the summer Free for All production in 2015, was stunning for so many big-picture reasons, but also for its attention to detail, including casting the director’s nephew to play the changeling boy. Putting an actual kid in the show to innocently frolic with the fairies and bounce off onstage trampolines solved the problem. 

So why, if the Folger was going to take so many liberties with Shakespeare’s text, did they not cut the creepy custody battle? 

As is so often the case in Midsummer, “the lovers,” two sets of Athenean mortals, are the least interesting characters onstage. At the Building Museum, they’re exceedingly silly, lack chemistry, and perform an inexplicably serious modern dance sequence. (Also of note: Hermia wears almost the exact same faux-schoolgirl uniform as she did at STC. How rude.)

The significant improvement that a decade has wrought is more diverse casting. While it would be nice to see more local actors in lead roles—most here are from New York and California—there are several in the ensemble. As Daniels moves forward in her Folger tenure, hopefully she’ll get to know Washington’s talent pool better and produce classics with more clarity. As the fairy messenger Puck (more or less) advises in Midsummer’s closing scene: If Daniels’ first attempt at D.C. theater has offended, then think of this, the future, and all is mended. 

Folger’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through Aug. 28 at the National Building Museum. folger.edu. $20–$85.