Marry who your father wants or death. Or get thee to a nunnery. There’s a serious price at stake for fair Hermia (Jenny Leona) at the top of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Hartford Stage if she refuses to marry her father’s pick Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson) and cut ties to her true love Lysander (Tom Pecinka). But, from bottom of the play Tony Award winner Darko Tresnjak directs, asinine and uproarious comedy dissolves all peril and casts a spell of laughter on us all.
In classic Shakespearean fashion, this masterpiece is chalk full of doubling, mistaken identities, and trickery. The tragic yet classic love triangle is essential to the comical geometry of this play and is a timeless device that makes the play relatable no matter what era we are in. And there are a couple. Hermia loves Lysander, Lysander loves Hermia, and Demetrius unrequitedly loves Hermia. And then Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet) loves Demetrius but seemingly has no admirers. We delight in Demetrius’s dogged pursuit of Hermia and Helena’s embellished misery and heartbreak as she chases Demetrius. While the actors are adults, they play their characters young as believable schoolboys and schoolgirls.
Then we have a parallel love triangle in the fairy kingdom of Oberon (Esau Pritchett) and Titania (Scarlett Strallen) as Oberon feels threatened by the motherly love Titania has for a late friend’s baby she takes in as her own.
Oberon turns character dynamics on their heads, bottoms up if you will, when he enlists Puck (Will Apicella) to find a flower with the magic to make Titania fall in love with the first wild creature she lays eyes on upon waking. He plots to distract her so he can steal the baby from her and win his queen’s love back when she realizes what an ass she’s made of herself.
Enter Bottom (John Lavelle). He (a crashing chauffeur) and team of aspiring players (a bootboy, tailor, chef, and painter) are the tangential third world in the play that bind all of the realms together as they work tirelessly to put on the Romeo-and-Juliet-esque play “Pyramus and Thisbe” for a wedding in the court of Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta. Nick Bottom wants to play every character and Lavelle plays him up as a flamboyant diva whose knack for overdoing it elicits a lot of laughter. Bottom has no problem being an ass and making an ass of himself, so an ass he becomes when Puck transforms him into a donkey. A little more string-pulling and, hee-haw, Titania falls in love with an ass to the confusion and disgust of her fairy subjects.
While Oberon is scheming, he observes Helena following Demetrius around in the woods and empathizes with her pain. So he asks Puck to use the same magic on the Athenian boy to make love right. But Puck uses the magic flower on Lysander by mistake so he falls for Helena. When Puck tries to correct his error and uses it on Demetrius, he too falls for Helena. Boom. Another love triangle. Except this time, to Hermia’s dismay and confusion, Hermia is the one chasing her love with no one loving her in return. Both men seem to despise her. The musical chairs of love connections creates comedy like no other. The more entangled and hazy the characters’ worlds get, the more enjoyable it is for us to watch. The role reversals of lovers ups the ante in the play and drives it in a more lively and dynamic direction.
But as witty and crafty as the literature and story of the play may be, the actors make the show. The physical comedy in this play is phenomenal. Sometimes the movements and expressions of the characters brought more laughs than the lines they spoke. They were that good. Everybody had a moment from Snout’s (Brent Bateman) phallic wall and chink in “Pyramus and Thisbe” to Flute’s lollipop sucking to the sexual pose duel between Lysander and Demetrius as they try to attract Helena during a feud with a confused Hermia.
I also enjoyed the double casting of Strallen as Queen Hippolyta and Titania, Pritchett as Duke Theseus and Oberon and the housemaids as fairies because it made it more symbolic. The players also all have a role in the court of Theseus and their performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” seems to connect the parallel universes despite how silly and mediocre the production is. There’s something endearing about their characters and performance that makes you delight in its flaws. You can’t help but love the shy Italian lion and man in the moon with his dog and appreciate the foresight of the actors to warn the royal court that it is not a real lion so they’re not scared and to assure them the actors are playing parts and the deaths aren’t real. It just goes to show how theater is so universal and magical.
Puck says at the end of the show “if these shadows have offended,” but the whole point of theater is to be edgy and impactful, so no apologies necessary. Actually the innuendos make the play the comic genius it is!
The play reunites a Tony Award caliber production team including director Darko Tresnjak and set designer Alexander Dodge, who were both involved in the Hartford Stage original plays “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and “Anastasia” that went to Broadway. Dodge crafted the simple, yet magical set for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” complete with a spinning house and twinkling shrubbery.
While the fairy chorus was pitchy in their first song, it was a delight to hear Strallen sing at the end and bring her sweet, powerful Broadway vocals from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love in Murder” back to Hartford Stage. It was a joy to see Hartford Stage’s Bob Cratchit, Robert Hannon Davis, as Peter Quince and Egeus.
All the world’s a stage and all of us are merely players, says Shakespeare. Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius in a way become part of another play within a play in the show as the actors have to transform their characters and execute the role reversals. And they did so brilliantly, pouring a physical display of comedy into the production that gave it depth despite how frivolously it seems to resolve the characters’ love plights.
Yet “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” challenges the convention of love and reminds us to dream and fight for our dreams. And in this case, the dreams shed light on life and melt into a more stable, happy reality.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs Oct. 8 at the Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, Conn. More information on purchasing tickets and the production is available at www.hartfordstage.org.