A memorably musical ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Ashland’s Shakespeare Festival

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Joseph Haj

REVIEWED BY DAVID TEMPLETON

I have seen enough productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” over the course of my theatergoing life –- at least two dozen of them — that I literally cannot recall anything about the majority of them. That will not be the case with Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s season-opening production of Shakespeare’s oft-produced comedy, directed by Joseph Haj (“Pericles” and “Henry V”). Though surprisingly deficient in the kind of fantasyland stage magic most “Midsummer” productions revel in, eschewing the usual fairy kingdom costumes and eliminating most of the second-string fairy characters altogether, Haj and company have nevertheless created a thoroughly charming, semi-musical version of Shakespeare’s romance, imbuing the many overlapping love stories with an unmistakable aura of love – love lost, love found and love sweetly and desperately dreamed of.

Hermia (Nubia Monks) loves Lysander (Jonathan Luke Stevens), but her father demands she marry Demetrius (William Tomas Hodgson), who loves Hermia, but once said he loved Helena (Royer Bockus), who still loves Demetrius. On the eve of Duke Thesius’ (Al Espinosa) marriage to the resistant Hyppolyta (Lauren Modica), the four young lovers find themselves pursuing and fleeing one another in the woods. Also in the vicinity are a band of blue-collar would-be actors rehearsing a play, a love story, which they hope to present at the Duke’s wedding reception. Bottom (an excellent Daniel T. Parker) is clearly a man aching to be loved and appreciated, turning the character’s usual over-reaching bombast into something richer. To some degree, that goes for the rest of Bottom’s clumsy troupe: Starveling (K.T. Vogt), Snout (Michele Mais), Snug (Jeremy Gallardo), Flute (Cristofer Jean) and Quince (Tyone Wilson). Their play-within-a-play, Shakespeare’s demented self-satire of his own “Romeo and Juliet,” provides some of the productions biggest laughs, and ultimately – in a bold decision I have never seen attempted before – some genuine truth and heartbreak.

The other denizens of the forest, of course, are the globetrotting fairies who’ve moved in for the week: the Fairy Queen Titania (also Modica), currently feuding with her sometime lover Oberon (also Espinoza), who employs his right-hand-fairy Puck (Jimmy Kieffer) to do a good deed, making Demetrius fall in love with Helena (spoiler alert: it doesn’t go as planned), and a not-so-good deed, making Titania fall in love with Bottom, who Puck gives the head of a donkey as icing on the cake.

As often happens in such Shakespearean mix-up plots, things get much worse before they get somewhat better.

Haj takes major liberties with the text, setting Shakespeare’s various rhymes to music, while adding additional songs by Jack Herrick of the Tony-winning Red Clay Ramblers (for 1999’s “Full Moon”), transforming the piece into a full-fledged musical. This serves the story in unexpected ways, allowing the four lovers to carry musical instruments with which they serenade each other, and bringing some additional emotion to sequences that can drag a bit in other productions. Other clever additions include an Act II scene-opening recap of Act I’s cliffhanger ending, and a spectacular elevated “bower” – basically a giant basket filled with pillows where Titania sleeps and … does other things.

The most memorable thing about Haj’s staging is the one thing I can’t mention, because it’s such a delightful surprise audiences deserve to experience it without a hint of a spoiler. All I can say is, it has a lot to do with love, you’ll know it when it happens, making it happen every time displays an impressive degree of commitment on the part of the creators, and it’s impossibly, heartwarmingly lovely.

If you are at all cynical about love and marriage, this moment just might change your mind … for a few charming moments, anyway.

[“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs through November 1 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Find information about this and the rest of the 2020 season at OSFAshland.org; This is the first of four shows that will be reviewed this weekend, as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 85th season.]

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