Review: Hartford Stage Production of :A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

5 min read
The Set for Drako Tresnjak’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
        One of the great appeals of William Shakespeare’s play is their mutability across time and location. As the most performed dramatic canon ever, Shakespeare’s plays have been set all through history and on every continent. Devout purists might scoff at a performance of Macbeth set in feudal Japan or a modern Coriolanus, and not without reason: it has become a rarity to find Shakespeare without an angle. The Hartford Stage is currently running version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is striking for that very reason: there is no additional meaning to be found in its setting. Director Darko Tresnjak’s vision for Midsummer is surprisingly, refreshingly, and at times frustratingly traditional. By way of this choice, this production makes a very pronounced decision to steer clear of conceptual risks. But even without a daring overhaul, the environment the play presents is engrossing, lush, compact, and well conceived.
Though its significance is chronically overblown, set design does a great deal for Shakespearian performances. In this production, a magnificent gatehouse stands in center stage, too large to be hidden by a curtain. The atmosphere is palatial; the space is absolutely decked out with topiary shrubs that seem lifted directly from one of Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare films. The gatehouse conveys the essential duality of Midsummer, a theme that manifests most obviously in the divide between the world of fairies and the world of mortals. With an indeterminate time period, a European setting, and an orderly space that indicates the leisure of wealth on all sides, this version of the play does not set out to subvert any expectations. If it is inflected by any outside influence, it is Downton Abbey, the beloved BBC soap. This version melded Downton’s fascination with the glamourous side of class distinction, doubling up actresses as maids in one world and fairies in the other.
Instead of spending energy on cleverly transferring an Elizabethan dramatic structure to a mind blowing, alternate world, Tresnjak focuses on minute details. There is a satisfying unity of movement, an orderliness that is present in all moments of the play. This strict spatial balance is evocative of the world of opera, and the musical interludes that pepper the play are effective and atmospheric. The greatest strength of Tresnjak’s Midsummer is its gift for shorthand: much of the play’s more subtle emotional material is shown through movement and suggestion alone. The excellent cast of the show is led by Esau Pritchett, playing Duke Theseus and Oberon, the fairy king. Oberon and his estranged wife Titania (Scarlett Strallen) were never the engine of this play more than in this production: Pritchett’s deep, bone-shaking bass speaking voice coupled with Strallen’s airy, electric soprano make them the most powerful speakers, and therefore the most powerful characters in terms of performance.
The four “students” whose love lives become crossed and uncrossed over the course of the five acts are acted with a more tongue-in-cheek approach to their roles. As characters whose principal job is to be tricked and conned repeatedly by the spirits of the forest, these performers lean into the clownish sides of their roles, letting the romantic aspects take a back seat. Tom Pecinka’s Lysander, Jenny Leona’s Hermia, Fedna Laure Jacquet’s Helena and Damian Jermaine Thompson’s Demetrius tend to be more slapstick than anything else, and their preference for screwball delivery shifts the weight of the play toward comedy and away from romance.
The most beloved character in Midsummer, and possibly in all of Shakespeare, is the mischievous wood sprite known as Puck. Will Apicella brings a certain bluntness to the role that is otherwise exactly as tradition dictates, right down to the leafy green garment. Apicella’s Puck never loses the attention of the audience, and his balletic, singsong persona is undoubtedly the heart of both play and production.
John Lavelle’s take on the actor and enchanted donkey Bottom is grating and extremely over the top, both attributes that are essential to the character. Lavelle’s unabashed scenery chewing is towering and unavoidable, and there were moments when the audience likely wished he were just a few inches farther from the center of attention. But with the drier silliness of the rest of his acting troupe to balance the full-throttle lunacy of the role, Lavelle’s all-in performance as the comic relief to an already richly comic play lands softly enough.
Thanks to a cast who are largely trained Shakespeareans, there is a sense of preparedness and confidence in each performance that allows the actors to just have fun. It is this freedom that finally ensures that A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a success. The play will run until October 8th 2017.

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