Not long ago, The Onion – a satirical digital news source – offered a mock review of Morristown Community Players’ production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and its bold decision to set it in 16th-century Venice, as written. Said the show’s director, “I know when most people hear ‘The Merchant Of Venice,’ they think 1960s’ Las Vegas, a high-powered Manhattan stock brokerage, or an 18th-century Georgia slave plantation, but I think it’s high time to shake things up a bit.”
So does the Ohio Shakespeare Festival regarding its current, open-air and empty stage production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one of the Bard’s earliest and most popular comedies as well as one of the OSF’s most successful and go-to offerings.
Shakespeare’s play is a dreamy charade that takes place in the woods of Athens during “midsummer” – that brief period during the June solstice when the sun reaches its highest point from the celestial equator, resulting in longer daytime hours, strange shadows, and an air of enchantment. It is brimming with some of his most clever comic constructions and fanciful flights of poetry.
The play was written in 1595, between recurring outbreaks of the bubonic plague in London. While in quarantine, the Bard wrote the ambiguous problem play “Measure for Measure” and put the finishing touches on the sober “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” Freed from the shadows of the pandemic, this work focuses on joyous celebration, raucous fun and delightful fantasy.
The same can be said for OSF’s exuberant and enchanting production, made even more so by its staging in the wooded lagoon of Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, where the sound of nearby toads and the fluttering of fireflies become part of the performance.
In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” mortals mingle with pixies and all sorts of hijinks ensue. Among the play’s assorted subplots, the featured storyline revolves around two young couples – Hermia (eMjay Ross) and Lysander (Peter Ruiz), and Helena (Natalie Steen) and Demetrius (Brandon Sapp) – who are in love with the wrong partners. Collectively, these players are adorable and handle Shakespeare’s brilliant wordplay – and some of the best insults ever written – with remarkable comic timing.
They venture into the woods and fall prey to mischievous fairies and their manipulations of the human heart. These are plotted by King Oberon (a powerful Derrick Winger), enforced by the mischievous Puck (the thoroughly engaging and always interesting Scott McKenna Campbell), and abetted by assorted sprites (DeLee Cooper, Nathan Hoyle, Chrissy Margevicius, Karen L. Wood, Hannah Storch, and Evan Wilhelms) who, with the assistance of fanciful costume (Marty LaConte) and lighting (Buddy Taylor) design, create a most plausible other-dimensional realm where their thoughts and desires shape reality.
Meanwhile, a dysfunctional troupe of workmen who fancy themselves thespians (Geoffrey Darling, Rachel Fichter, Dimitri Georgiadis, James Alexander Rankin, Mark Stoffer, and Ryan Zarecki) – clad in creative, character-defining garb (designed by Kelsey Tomlinson) – prepare a play to be performed at Duke Theseus’ (a thoroughly charming Brian Pedaci) wedding.
The production, under Tess Burgler’s direction, is mindful of Elizabethan staging, delightfully effervescent, and seasoned with period songs and musical interludes played by performers that add to the ambiance.
Perhaps Burgler’s wisest decision was to give free rein to Zarecki as Bottom and Rankin as Flute. Their onstage antics – particularly their hilarious, slapstick death scenes in the play being performed for the Duke – are the highlights in an evening filled with remarkable performances, including that of Steen, who finds and embellishes every comedic moment as Helena, and Holly Humes as the fairy queen Titania, whose rich monologues and under-the-influence interaction with Zarecki’s Bottom are brilliant.
Every performer attentively listens to the others rather than merely reacts, which engages the audience. And performers directly address the audience throughout the show as if we were groundlings at the Red Lion, The Rose, or the Globe theaters in the early 17th century, which brings us deeper into the world of this play.
The only thing that could have made this production even more enchanting is if it were staged during the June solstice. But then, COVID-19 regulations would have required limited seating in addition to the distanced seating currently enforced, and the more that get to see this production the merrier.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. He was named best in Ohio for reviews/criticism in the Press Club of Cleveland’s 2021 All Ohio Excellence in Journalism Awards.