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A CurtainUp Review
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends
Dave Johnson as Puck. (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)
Theater companies love to get ahold of A Midsummer Night's Dream so they can have their way with it. In the firmament somewhere there's a constellation of performances going back 400 years. Therefore I won't re-tell this merry and tragical tale of the intersection of classical heroes on the brink of marriage, fairy spells, young Athenians in love, and lowly tradesmen. The story is easily googled. I'll go right to this production.

It is a wonderful show which will richly reward the investment of time and energy to go and see it. But before I discuss its considerable payoffs, we need to get some perplexing production choices out of the way.

From the get-go the Lantern's production is unusual for this particular play in that it presents exuberant physical comedy in a seriously and deliberately muted setting. Muted is an understatement. Comic actors dressed in nondescript, unattractively wrinkled clothes with washed-out colors are lost in a wood that is also the home of Oberon's fairy kingdom. There isn't a leaf to connote a lush forest or a whimsical touch to suggest fairy inhabitation. Instead, the wood is represented by hefty gray stone. Gray drapes provide background for long thin swaths of sheeting, which, though sweeping and dramatic, are just plain white. A bare stage might have been better, where audience members could project their own setting.

Fairies, togged in deep toned leaf headpieces and vests (not enough to read "forest"), don't shimmer with otherworldliness (and to be honest, they aren't much for singing either). Later, the famed ass's head will not even get flowers. Would they be too bright? Daniel Perelstein's minimalist musical score, while fascinating in its unique use of sounds and tones, matches the color palette: It's non-assertive.

There has been so much video work projected on stage lately that it was actually a relief that director Charles McMahon didn't go there. Still, although the show's lighting has good moments, it needs to be more of a dramatic presence. So the overall design concept is pretty much a downer, as the set fails to enchant with its seriously underplayed dream aspect.

The very good news is that once you get past the look, and move on to the acting, the ensemble is strong and the show is fantastic. When you know this theater's work, you anticipate the hallmarks of a Lantern Shakespeare comedy, that is, the intricate interaction of word and movement and the distinctly fresh, physical approach to time-worn roles. And your expectations are met.

McMahon has selected a Philadelphia cast, and that means something. This town has world class contenders among its fine established theaters, renowned resident experimental theater companies, and an interconnected web of remarkable new companies. Add the factor of cutting edge university theater departments whose faculties are intimately connected to the professional theater scene — and it is not surprising that Philly has emerged as a crucible for the development of a new strain of mindful and exquisite physical performance. The extraordinary actors coming up through the Philadelphia pipeline understand physical theater, and it comes through big-time in their tremendously productive ensemble work.

The Midsummer cast, which is in-the-moment, is attuned to the audience, and subtly plays on their reactions Not only are performances nuanced, but some slight gesture or glance often will transmit little ironies. Not camp, more like meta-theatrical commentary on the goings on.

But it's not all small gesture. Theseus and Hippolyta duel with swords. Charlie Delmarcelle and Joanna Liao play their characters smart, tough, and fluid. The performance of the two pairs of amusing young Athenian lovers sends sparks. They cling and chase, fight and drag each other across the floor. It's shriekingly, strugglingly outrageous.

Oberon and Puck are so well partnered they move in idiosyncratic, intuitive synchronized movements. Puck isn't, well, Puckish. Rather than sprightly, he's dark — more sinister than merry. Dave Johnson's embodiment of Robin Goodfellow has a suitable whiff of the diabolical, and there's a hint of amphibian in his postures.

Those who know and love this play and the play-within-a-play will appreciate that Bottom (Benjamin Lloyd) comically rules the stage during his scenes. With his impeccable timing, his strutting and mugging, he takes it to the audience. It's easy to conjure up how these scenes would have played in Shakespeare's day when bombastic Bottom took to the boards and overdid it. In fact, all the mechanicals are a lot of fun. Notably, Snout and his wall are truly peculiar and distinctive. I've never seen Snout done like Mark Cairns does him.

Before I wrap this, I want to highlight a shortlist of memorable productions I've enjoyed, and perhaps you have seen, that are out there somewhere in the Midsummer constellation: Just this last fall, local theater enthusiasts were treated to Mauckingbird's take with its touch of leather fetish, Lady Gaga and Chris Colucci's techno funk music. Once, I caught an airy annual production in London's Regent's Park, and I also recall a local university's version that set the story in the '50s and featured a car onstage. Many moons ago in '89 there was the Pennsylvania (and Milwaukee) Ballet's production of the Mendelssohn/Balanchine ballet, with Tamara Hadley as a breathtakingly elegant Titania. Adorable children joined her, dancing roles of butterflies and fairies in Oberon's Kingdom. Then in '91, I enjoyed this beloved play at the Zellerbach, directed by Mary B. Robinson with a certain Charles McMahon frolicking among fellow cast members

Although the Lantern's design choices are hard to comprehend, the lively yet meticulous ensemble acting brings this much-loved story to life, and this production will take its place among pleasurable Midsummer memories.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Charles McMahon

Cast: David Blatt, Mark Cairns, Charlie DelMarcelle, Mike Dees, Lee Ann Etzold, Charlotte Ford, Dave Johnson, Joanna Liao, Benjamin Lloyd, David J. Sweeny, Bradley K. Warren
Set Design: Meghan Jones
Costume Design: Mary Folino
Lighting Design: Drew Billiau
Composer and Sound Design: Daniel Perelstein
Fight Director: J. Alex Cordaro
March 10- April 17, 2011, Opening 03/16/11
2 hours, 35 minutes with one 12 min intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 03/16 performance. At Lantern Theater Company, St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Sts.
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