A Midsummer Night's Dream is arguably Shakespeare's most exquisitely wrought piece of dramatic construction. Three tales intermingle to weave a magical web of three comic styles. Sophisticated romantic comedy featuring witty ripostes is the manner of the court creatures, ruled by Theseus and his new bride, Hippolyta. The rude mechanicals, headed by the ass Bottom, provide an example of low comedy, filled with vulgar double-entendres and malapropisms. Oberon and Titania are the monarchs of a fairy kingdom that laces the moonlight with a comical fantasy. Filled with surprises, Dream is also Shakespeare's most accessible play, delighting all ages in all ages. For the mature lovers in his audience, Shakespeare has given us the midlife marriage of two voluptuous warriors, Theseus and Hippolyta, as well as the tart bickering of Oberon and Titania. In contrast, the turbulent rapids of young love flow in farcical ripples through the tribulations of Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius. Love endures even the ridiculous distortions of Titania's obsession with Bottom, and the tragical mirth of Pyramus' passion for his Thisbe.
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All these comic strands and love stories are intertwined like ribbons on a Maypole. Add to this some of Shakespeare's most memorable lines and his most irresistible character, that mischievous wanderer of the night, Puck, and you have the recipe for a delicious dramatic souffl. But, of course, imagination must overcome the limitations of a specific space, and Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts challenges the design team of Black Theatre Troupe with a gauntlet of obstacles. Richard Powers has come up with solutions that are practical, if clumsy, making it difficult to soar on a romantic journey that transcends technical stagecraft. A fountain brings forth only a trickle of water. A barrel-shaped tree trunk shakes with each step of the action. A backdrop of unwieldy panels noisily changes to suggest the duke's palace, Peter Quince's shop and the forest. Too many truncated stumps litter the stage in a silent cry for forest conservation. Director Mike Traylor is one of our better local actors, and he shines here in the role of Oberon. His directorial skills are not as felicitous, too often interrupting the action with orgiastic interpretive dances that are far beneath the quality of the rest of the production. As a result, the evening approaches a long day's journey into a midsummer nightmare of nearly three hours' length. Traylor has set his Dream in Athens, Georgia, for no apparent purpose beyond the coincidence of the name. In this version, Theseus looks like a lecherous Colonel Sanders and Hippolyta is a vacuous beauty queen, "Miss Amazon of 1994." They loll on a porch, enjoying juleps served by a white-jacketed Philostrate.
The quartet of young lovers is cast interracially, which gives a fresh twist to the objections to their marriages. The mechanicals are portrayed as redneck hillbillies (Flute's first entrance is from an outhouse), though any of them wanting to appear in a play stretches credulity. The fairy kingdom is a fanciful mix of tribal African royalty and faggotry, a combination hard to credit in the contemporary South. There are a couple of clever interpolations, such as Egeus' beeper going off at an inopportune moment, or Puck and Oberon settling in with cans of Pepsi and a tub of buttered popcorn to watch the adventures of these foolish mortals. But finally, there is less of a conception at work here than an olio of ideas that never blend into a unified vision. "Hot ice and wondrous strange snow," as drama critic Theseus might put it.
The acting is as uneven as the concept, but the key roles are, on the whole, well-cast. I particularly enjoyed the professional poise of Brian Barham as Egeus and the regality of Traylor as Oberon. Puck enters on a skateboard, and is insolently played by a near-naked Tim Shawver, whose tone of saucy insouciance struck many in the audience as just right. Dave McKibben's Bottom is like Gary Busey after a six-pack, perfect for the pickled-pigs-feet crowd. Carolyn Parson is a warm and engaging Hermia, unlike the strident Helena played with gross caricature by Faith Scott. The best actor in the recent Titus Andronicus is again the best actor in this Dream: Robert Daniels. His handsome Lysander is always believable, always funny and always sympathetic. The Valley may be quietly training a major actor in Daniels.
Only Nick Nichols as Theseus is truly unbearable, garbling his lines beyond recognition, slurring the dialogue in a drawl as thick as molasses. When he begins a line, one frequently wonders if he has any recollection of how it's supposed to end. As for the rest--well, they give their all (and sometimes more) in a lively and earnest effort that brings to mind Theseus' defense of the misbegotten Pyramus and Thisbe: "I will hear that play; For never anything can be amiss/When simpleness and duty tender it.