Trippy A Midsummer Night's Dream from Southwest Shakespeare Enchants and Delights

If you're not a huge Shakespeare fan but remain curious and open, it might help you to know that the Fresh Prince of Stratford was not a "pure" artist, one of those tortured souls who create because they must, are annoying, obscure, and unpopular in life, and inspire cult-ish devotion after death.

Nope, he was churning out the crowd-pleasers, trying to run a business and make a living.

Just like other art from 400 years ago, some of Shakespeare's plays have become dated and simply weird, while others remain relevant and sometimes even fun.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of those way accessible comedies, and Southwest Shakespeare Company's current production is entertaining and fascinating without sacrificing meat for fluff.

Nearly all Shakespearean plots have precedents somewhere in literature, history, and/or mythology (sampling and mashups were already rampant back then, as was the tendency to insert a fight scene whenever possible, not to mention dance breaks: Are we sad? Let's have a song. Sleepy? Lullaby. Celebrating? Pageant. Magical? Incantation. Recently reconciled? Prove it, bitch. Finale? Play us off.)

Along with ubiquitous brown-nosed tributes to rulers and sponsors of the time, this litters the scripts with references that contemporary audiences tend not to get. Canny artists of today minimize that stuff, keeping what's a) interesting and b) timeless. Besides his way with language and human nature, what keeps the Bard on theaters' season schedules is his compact, flexible composition style, which enables the excision of lines, couplets, or paragraphs -- even entire characters and subplots -- without serious consequences.

And hallelujah for that, 'cause these mofos are lengthy . But here's the thing about SSC's Midsummer's: It sped by like the best time ever, but when I checked the clock afterward, assuming that the text had been slashed to shreds, the length of a full play had, in fact, elapsed. Director (and legendary animator) Don Bluth, who created last season's mega-charming Blithe Spirit for the company, has styled this production to harmonize with the way the mortal characters feel at the final curtain -- not knowing what just happened (were they asleep? enchanted? both?) but pleased with the outcome.

Which is an upbeat one, if you're willing to concede that fairies may have been manipulating your relationships in the night. The message: Peace is good. Love is easy. What happens in the forest stays in the forest.

The cast sparkles (many of them literally, in Lois K. Meyers' Munchkin-cute, candy-colored fairy outfits), especially Justine Hartley, as love-scarred yet hopeful Helena, and gangly local fave Joe Kremer as a plucky amateur thespian who is forced to play "the woman's part" in the teensiest red dress ever.

I had the rare and serendipitous honor of attending the show on a night that teenagers from the Florence schools were there and Southwest Shakespeare presented a talkback session afterward that was attended by Bluth and most of the cast. What gracious, fun, brainy people were on the stage and in the audience that evening -- and, as generally happens when I sit through a talkback, they helped me write this review. Thanks, guys!

A Midsummer Night's Dream continues through Saturday, January 22, in the Virginia G. Piper Repertory Theater at Mesa Arts Center, One East Main Street. For tickets, $8.50 to $31.50, click here or call 480-644-6500.

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