At Trinity Rep ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Rocks the House

Review by Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

According to reports on the internet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has become the most frequently performed Shakespeare play in North America, England, and Australia. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. It is one of the bard’s most accessible plays.

Trinity Repertory Company opened their latest version of the comic romp on February 9. It’s their third production of the play over the years dating back to 1967. This edition will run through March 24 – if the actors don’t wear themselves to a frazzle before then. This is one wild and crazy show that demands a pull out all the stops performance by everyone involved.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has proven, as critics have noted, to be a kind of Rorschach test for viewers, a make-of-it-what-you-will endeavor. It is more easily grasped than many of Shakespeare’s plays, the humor often physical and easier to understand than the cerebral, embellished word play of some of the other comedies. In the quest for laughs this Trinity production leaves no stone unturned and no performer unchallenged by its demands on their energy and conditioning.

On stage in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater, upstairs at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington Street, Providence, the show is directed by Tyler Dobrowsky. He has chosen to set the action at a high school dance in 1986. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is often done in different time and frame settings, so this is not a shock. It is, however, at times a bit of a reach as the players work to merge the 16th century script with a 20th century conception that is often over the top.

The story is about youthful rebellion, misdirected love, altered states of consciousness, and a woodland sprite, named Puck, who at the behest of his master, uses magic juice to disrupt the relationships of the principal characters. Much of the action takes place in a forest fairyland.

As the story begins, Hermia and Lysander are madly in love. However, her father, Egeus, detests Lysander and has promised her to Demetrius. Meanwhile, Helena is smitten with Demetrius and isn’t ready to surrender her desire for him. Egeus takes his case to Theseus, the Duke of Athens, who is, himself, preparing to marry Hippolyta. Theseus sides with Egeus and rules that unless Hermia agrees to marry Demetrius she will have to enter a nunnery or die.

So the young lovers decide to flee to the woodland. Demetrius follows them and Helena follows him. There, they are observed by Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, who are arguing. Piqued at his queen, Oberon schemes to have Puck, who is his servant, put magical drops in Titania’s eyes while she sleeps. The drops will cause her to fall in love with the first person she sees on awakening. Oberon also witnesses Demetrius reject Helena and tells Puck to use the elixir on him as well, but Puck errs and Lysander winds up with the potion in his eyes instead.

Thereupon chaos ensues as Lysander wakes, sees Helena, and falls in love with her. Also, Titania sees and is besotted with a local tradesman called Nick Bottom, who has been fitted with a jackass head by Puck. Soon there is rampant confusion. No one is with the right lover, and the mistaken and/or abandoned objects of affection are terribly upset. The mix-ups provide the opportunity for extreme mirth and funny business before everything is eventually made right and the proper couplings are restored by Oberon and Puck. Once that happens, Theseus relents and endorses the union of Hermia and Lysander. Demetrius sees the possibilities with Helena, and Titania is reunited with Oberon.

Is this temporary descent into lovesick madness a metaphor for the fickle nature of human affection, the irrationality of love? Or is it a meditation on the mythic nature of fantasy abetted by enchantment, a foray into the world of spirits and fairies where logic and convention are upended by lust and unreasoned desire? In truth, it is all that and more. Love, it seems, is a special kind of madness.

As a bonus, the story concludes with a mock play within the play. Nick Bottom, his head restored to its original state, and a band of untutored rustics called “mechanicals,” are chosen to entertain at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. They are directed by a bumbling well-meaning innocent named Peter Quince. Their ludicrous, inept efforts at creating a drama called the “most lamentable tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe,” a tale drawn from Ovid, are hilarious and poignant at the same time.

Trinity does a certain kind of justice to this chameleon-like take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing it for all the zany, raucous stage business and burlesque they can pack into it. There is also a nifty rock band, a rapping Peter Quince, and a hyper manic, out of control conclusion to the mechanicals’ play. There are also plenty of madcap special effects.

Oh! And Puck spends most of the show on roller skates wearing a tutu-like costume. Maybe that’s all you need to know to form an image of what happens in this production, which takes place on a bare floor without scenery (but lots of props). The action rampages throughout the audience, as well, with actors squeezing between rows of patrons at times.

Rachel Warren is rather awesome as Puck and as a singer with the band. Mauro Hantman does exceedingly well in dual roles as Theseus and Oberon. Ditto for Phyllis Kay as Hippolyta/Titania.

Trinity veteran and treasure Timothy Crowe excels as Egeus and Snug, who is the lion in the mechanicals’ play. Rebecca Gibel is versatile and spot on as Hermia. Jude Sandy makes a satisfying Demetrius, and Daniel Duque-Estrada gives us a spirited but slightly narrow-ranged Lysander. Gwen Kingston rolls with the extremes in the part of Helena, using her expressions and body language deftly to convey her emotions. Long-time Trinity mainstays Brian McEleney as Peter Quince and Falstaffian Fred Sullivan as Bottom and Pyramus blow the doors off with their outlandish and crowd pleasing turns. Jeff Church, Angela Brazil, and Kym Gomes do yeoman work as members of the Peter Quince troupe, as does Teddy Lytle in two roles.

This is the 50th anniversary of Project Discovery, in conjunction with which Trinity is giving a free ticket to every 11th grader in the state.