While it's true that "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is attributed to William Shakespeare, there are other fingerprints all over the current production of the classic comedy at Pioneer Memorial Theatre that seem to set it apart.
Those fingerprints belong to Charles Morey, Pioneer Theatre Company's artistic director and the architect who designed this beautiful and innovative entertainment. With a flair for the unusual and a keen sense of humor, Morey has created a production that is filled with moments that will live in memory.The memorable moments start as soon as the curtain raises on George Maxwell's gorgeous manor setting. Although it does little to evoke a feeling of Athens (the opening scene's supposed setting), it is a thing of beauty to behold. And when the scene changes to a woodland setting later - and then back again - even the smooth choreographed scene change is lovely to watch.
The next thing you notice is the work of costumer Elizabeth Novak, who under Morey's direction has clothed her actors in Victorian-era costumes as opposed to the more traditional Greek robes and togas. Modern directors seem to like to play costuming games with Shakespeare, as if clothes from a different era will add some new meaning and significance to the material. I don't have any problem with the ploy as long as directors can justify the decision interpretationally, and Morey is able to do it with a unique twist of his own in the well-known script.
Those familiar with the story will remember that "A Midsummer Night's Dream" begins with two troubled romances. Lysander and Hermia love each other and wish to marry, but Hermia is also loved by Demetrius, who is preferred by Hermia's father. Hermia hates Demetrius, but Helena loves him passionately and pursues him as he pursues Hermia, who pursues Lysander.
Traditionally, the soon-to-be-consummated relationship between Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, is presented as a mature, loving counterpoint to the skittish frenzies of the younger lovers. But in Morey's production, Theseus and Hippolyta aren't getting along so well themselves. Theseus is clearly in love with Hippolyta, but his betrothed bride is something less than enthusiastic about the prospect.
The device brings an interesting edge to the proceedings, giving us three relationships that are in need of a little help from the fairies in the nearby woods. And that help arrives courtesy of the fairy King Oberon and Queen Titania, who, in another Morey-esque innovation, are played by the same actors (Patrick Page and Lynn Chausow) who play Theseus and Hippolyta. The dual casting and an ethereal bit of business Morey has added make it clear he is interpreting the fairy scenes as a fantasy from Theseus's imagination (although that premise muddies up the play's pastoral resolution a bit).
Page, a commanding actor who Utah Shakespearean Festival audiences will remember from a number of outstanding performances there, is superb in both roles, bringing regal gentleness to the Duke and commanding impishness to Oberon. It is a thrill to watch the physical nuances he brings to each role, and his deep, rich voice could make James Earl Jones blush.
Chausow is also very good as Hippolyta/Titania, as are fellow New York City imports Bonnie Black (Hermia), Michele Farr (Helena), John Hickok (Lysander) and Rene Moreno (Demetrius). But in my view, none was so overwhelmingly excellent that it explained why New York actors were brought in for roles that probably could have been played just as well by local actors.
In fact, the evening's most memorable performance is turned in by one of our most beloved local actors - Max Robinson, who absolutely stops the show as Nick Bottom, a weaver-turned-actor-turned-donkey. PTC audiences are used to seeing Robinson put his unique stamp on character parts, but they've never seen him quite this brilliant. He headlines a scene - the play-within-a-play production of "The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby" - that surely ranks among PTC's most side-splitting. Ever.
Of course, credit for that scene also goes to fine performances by Bruce Somerville as Peter Quince, Duane Stephens as Snug, Mearle Marsh as Francis Flute, Gene Pack as Tom Snout and Ray Hoskins as Robin Starveling. And don't forget to credit Morey for creative, effective staging throughout. (Pay particular attention to how Oberon uses his powers to physically manipulate Puck, resulting in some wonderful bits of business.)
And while we're speaking of Puck, we should mention Richard Mathews' well-crafted performance in the role. And tribute should also be paid to Liisa Ivary, Jayne Luke, Betsy Nagel, Sam Stewart and Michael Ruud, who performed well in supporting roles. Ditto Peter L. Willardson's evocative lighting and James Prigmore's original musical score. Bravo to all.
But especially to Morey, who was willing to take some risks with a timeless dramatic classic. PTC's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" may not win any awards from Shakespearean purists who balk at any departure from tradition. But it provides a wonderful and wondrous evening of live theater - traditional or otherwise.