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‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is time well-spent at New Phoenix

It has come down through the centuries that William Shakespeare wrote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for certain functions in the court of Elizabeth I or maybe for a wedding or some other gala where little audience thought was required.

Well, nothing much has changed. The 420-year-old comedy/fantasy, easily Shakespeare’s silliest and most absurd play, has opened at New Phoenix Theatre Company. It is directed by Kelli Bocock-Natale with plenty of wink and wisdom in an entertaining, if interminable at times, mix of the traditional and the creative: Contemporary music is heard and somebody utters a line from “Hamlet” in the early going.

It’s a colorful, madcap and magical night in the forest – familiar Shakespeare, where danger and pleasure co-exist – multiple plots, royals, pixies, a quartet of young, moonstruck lovers, a place, in other words, where Shakespeare’s Romantics, Immortals and Mechanicals run amok, a tangle of a story that somehow happily resolves for all.

“Dream” has never had two interpretations exactly the same. There is much room for invention. Since 1595 or so, great license has been taken with the story. There have been versions sans clothes, some with the principals on trapezes. I once saw a dark production of it with roaring motorcycles, much smoke and lots of leather. Song and dance have crowded out the text on occasion, spectacle has been the focus, rustic often rules, and ballets, operas and movies are ample. It’s true. Shakespeare inspires much foolishness.

A synopsis is a challenge. A Duke of Athens, Theseus, plans to wed the Amazon Queen, Hippolyta, but he gets involved in the love affairs of some young people, the feisty Hermia and the callow Lysander, the lissom Helena and the clueless Demetrious. Apparently, Theseus has the final say about who marries whom and even the would-be couples are having trouble deciding mates.

So, everyone runs off to a nearby forest to sort everything out – Elizabethans bought into this idea readily – maybe to live in mystery or secret amid strange sounds and shadows, away from society’s mores. Pixies and sprites live in the woods along with their masters, Oberon and the beautiful but just-now-chilly Titania. Because it’s his turf and it’s a midsummer’s night, when flower power is at its peak, Oberon, trying to help, arms his chief elf, Puck, with love juice and herbs and sends him out to drop the potion onto the eyelids of the unsuspecting visitors. In theory, they will be forever in love with the first person they see when they wake up. Puck messes up the orders – mischief, maybe? – and on a whim, drops a little of the magic stuff on Titania. Chaos.

Oberon saves the night with one more herb. “When they next wake, all this derision shall seem a dream and fruitless vision.” There are eventually weddings all around, a raucous reception – thanks to Bocock-Natale’s comic sense – and, of course, a special, rag-tag and hilarious performance of “Pyramus and Thisby” by an inept group of actors for the royal bride and groom. Historically, this is a “Dream” highlight. It is again.

The cast is superb, young and able Shakespearians all, some doubling as forest denizens with names like Cobweb and Mustardseed; you’ll love them. They romp through the night, handling luscious rhymes and clever wordplay with ease, at home with cadence, space and pace. Kudos to Megan Callahan as Hippolyta/Titania; Bobby Cooke as Theseus/Oberon; Jamie Nablo as Hermia; Nicholas Lama as Lysander; Eliza Vann as Helena; Kurt Ebb as Demetrius; the indomitable Eric Rawski as Bottom the Weaver, one of theater’s greatest comic roles, a side-splitting victim of Puck’s random juicing; the invaluable Caitlin Coleman and Billy Horn, adept in several key roles; and, lastly, Maria Droz, as the tumbling, naughty Puck, causer of the turmoil, a role that, without director’s reins, can become tiresome. Puck never seems out of control and nicely sends watchers home: “So, goodnight to you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends.” A fine farewell.

“Dream” takes place on a simple and shiny woodslike set by newcomer Paul L. Bostaph. It’s a Crayola-hued marvel with room to race. Technically, this show has it together.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the New Phoenix is time well spent.

Review

4 stars

What: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Where: New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 N. Johnson Park

When: Through May 23

Tickets: $30 general, $20 students, seniors and industry

Info: 853-1334, newphoenixtheatre.org

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