A Midsummer Night's Dream, Folger Theatre

Note: the following review does reveal several elements unique to this production. Proceed at your own risk; here be spoilers.

When mounting a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the temptation to tinker with a familiar play must be (understandably) very difficult to resist. In Aaron Posner's Director's Notes for his production currently running at the Folger Theatre, he cites four previous productions of Midsummer that have touched his life, and gestures towards the inevitability that many of the audience will have a similar wealth of Midsummers They Have Known lurking in their memory. The challenge for any director is to dive into the familiar and find something that speaks to them strongly enough in the text to justify their own new production. It's no surprise that, true to form, Mr. P isn't able to trust Shakespeare's text to get the job done, a tendency I've never understood in his productions for the Folger. The piece is bracketed by a new prologue and a rousing musical number that transitions out of the mechanicals' bergomask (as well as some other interior tweaks). It's not that Shakespeare wasn't averse to a prologue himself, or didn't end every play with music and a jig in keeping with the contemporary traditions; more that, once again, it seems more important that we the audience sense the hand of Aaron Posner guiding the play.

The results can at times be a mixed bag of a Midsummer. Eric Hissom and Erin Weaver make an excellent team as Oberon/Theseus and Puck, and I did enjoy the conceit of the mechanicals as a group of young women, still in school and venturing into the theatrical thicket. Holly Twyford does excellent work as Bottom, although her role within the mechanicals social world seems unclear (are both she and Richard Ruiz's Peter Quince their drama teachers? If so, that relationship ultimately becomes muddied as time goes on and the text can't support it). It's worth mentioning, however, that when Weaver's Puck transforms Bottom into the strange half-ass, half-human creature that so terrifies the mechanicals, I have never before felt such pity for Bottom. In the altered costume, Twyford's Bottom became a grotesque, quietly confused and suddenly lost and alone. It's a genuinely affecting moment created by Twyford, Posner, and Devon Painter's costume design. I later found myself quickly warming to the final musical production number, thanks to the willingness of the cast to Go There with absolute commitment to Erika Chong Shuch's choreography, but wondering why the musical element couldn't have been woven into the world of the play earlier? I was actually reminded of Posner's Twelfth Night for the Folger, which I think included music VERY successfully in its narrative; in that case, music was already a part of Shakespeare's play, and Mr P. didn't have to suddenly forge new ground by simply incorporating more of it.

Ultimately, I enjoyed quite a lot in this Midsummer. As much as I grumble about Mr P's tendency to fix what isn't broken in Shakespeare, I acknowledge that I'm often the only one muttering in the back of the theatre when everyone around me is delighted with the final production. He assembles good people, from his actors to his designers, and with a text like Shakespeare's, that can take you pretty far. This is a production with a lot of charm, and I'm happy to be charmed for two hours at the Folger.


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