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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Passion of Loud Laughter

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Sarah Hickler and Lisa Wolpe

With Sarah Cohen, Jean Barnwell, Kortney Adams, Abby Spinak, Jeff Lee, Rydia Vielehr, Brian Keller, Damien Burke, Sean Austin, Alan Groff, Brandy Evans, Kim Falinski, Jessica Hinel, Brenda Pendleton, Alice Tsay, Cyndi Vongvanith

The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble presentation

In La Sala de Puerto Rico until March 18

The first (and just about the most important) requirement of a theatrical production is that the audience would sit in a dark room for a couple of hours and not be bored. Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of A Midsummers Night’s Dream amply satisfies this requirement, and more: it’s not merely consistently entertaining, it’s downright hilarious, making Shakespeare’s comedy instantly -- and emotionally -- appealing.

This production, directed by Sarah Hickler and Lisa Wolpe, utilizes the dichotomy between two coexisting worlds, one of moping mortals and another of fighting fairies. The world of humans is the one to which the play devotes the bulk of its length, and it is the one that is both funnier and more emotionally appealing than its fairy counterpart.

Two main human plot lines are intertwined through Midsummer’s fabric, without touching each other, and each is marvelous in a distinct way. The first, where the actions center around a complicated love quadrangle, takes four “foolish mortals” -- Helena (Jean Barnwell ’03), Hermia (Kortney Adams G), Lysander (Brian Keller ’01), Demetrius (Damien Burke ’02) -- who are lost in the woods, the labyrinthine surroundings mirroring the tangle of their feelings. For a while, these four wander around (at least, until the plot exposition is over) -- and then magic starts happening.

This magic occurs not only in the plot (with the fairies directing these poor mortals like so many actors), but in the true theatrical sense. A scene in the beginning of the second act of this production (Act III, scene 2 in the original play) works as the climax of this storyline, and works doubly: as a comic and as a dramatic high point. The bickering of spurned and betrayed lovers goes on and on, with Shakespeare adding new twists and new jokes after the scene almost seemed to play out, and each minute adds new levels of energy: as the characters become more and more anguished, the scene becomes funnier and funnier. At the same time, there is a distinct note of desperation in these characters: we are witnessing their lives falling apart, and this is powerful stuff, touching and dramatic, enriching the comedy with profound character empathy.

This is not easy to act, and the fact that it works wonderfully is entirely to the credit of Barnwell, playing amusingly neurotic and not overdone, and Adams, regal as usual (the men are fine as well, but they are used more like set pieces, both by the play and by this production). Their acting is committed, physically impressive, and simultaneously tender and feral -- and, still, very funny. In addition, their lines sound alive and spontaneous, neither archaic nor stilted. Small details help enormously as well: for example, the women’s hairdos gradually mutate from neat and orderly to wild and messy.

The second human plotline provides the third acting standout: Sarah R. Cohen ’00 in the part of Bottom. Cross-casting Bottom and most of the other amateur actors provides instant comic effect, with Thisbe, the only female part in the play-within-the-play, being played by the only male in this group; but the real advantage of this is seeing Cohen do wonders with her part. Playing an actor is one of the hardest acting jobs, and Cohen succeeds where, say, Kevin Kline failed: her Bottom is clearly obsessed by art but not as much as to become obnoxious.

The finale, with its semi-impromptu performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, is where Midsummer explodes with inspired comic action, each gag being funnier than the previous one, with every aspect of the production -- from the acting and staging to the wildly creative costumes (by Leslie Cocuzzo-Held, Diane Brainerd, and Brandy Evans ’01) -- joining together to create an irresistible scene. Even small details and lines work: Moonshine (Evans, finally cast in a part which utilizes her great comic timing) gets to deliver only a couple of lines, but to great effect.

There’s also the world of fairies, and that doesn’t work quite as well. Abby Spinak ’01 as Puck is highly impressive in a very physical performance, reinforcing the fact that acting is still the best special effect. The rest of the fairy storyline is functional, but doesn’t carry as much emotional heft as the human one does. Since this production chooses to place humans and fairies on the opposite sides of its spectrum, the internal conflict between Oberon (Jeff Lee) and Titania (Rydia Vielehr ’03) gets lost in the background. It’s rather hard to care about their argument, especially because its crux, with all its off-the-wall references to a blue baby, feels so perfunctory.

By the way, this distinction -- humans versus fairies -- is not the only possible way to delineate the polar extremes of Midsummer’s world: the stunning 1935 black-and-white film with James Cagney and Olivia De Haviland is the best example of a production where the Oberon/Titania conflict works, and the most important reason is that these two are used as the opposites, as apart as night and day, with humans occupying the center.

As the result, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is possibly the funniest Shakespeare I ever saw, easily satisfying the first requirement of theatre that I mentioned above. I can also wish that it was actually about something, but this Midsummer is stronger when it concerns individual scenes as opposed to deeper themes. In this production, there’s very little connection between the lovers’ adventures in the woods and the climactic play performance. This connection exists, however: Bottom is struggling for high art, which he, a mediocre actor at best, can never reach -- as he knows he can never repeat that magic night when he, a humble mortal, was loved by the Queen of Fairies.

This hopeless struggle for perfection -- whether it is love, or art, or magic -- is the underlying theme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it is muted, if at all discernible here. Were it clearer, this production could have been as deeply profound as it is remarkably entertaining.