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Review: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at WSC Avant Bard

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Each year, Shakespeare is the most frequently produced playwright in America, and his A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the Bard’s most frequently produced plays.

So if you’re going to produce it, you’d better have a fresh hook.

WSC Avant Bard’s production, directed by Randy Baker, does: Midsummer‘s fairy-filled forest now has shadow puppets: Oberon and Titania, Cobweb and Peaseblossom, and Puck.

(In shadow:) Zach Brewster-Geisz (Bottom). Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

(In shadow:) Zach Brewster-Geisz (Bottom). Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Of course, Puck, played by the wonderfully animated Daven Ralston, leads the way in this comedy about love’s madness in Athens, or rather in the forest outside of Athens. And she, like the little Mermaid, crosses over, from shadow to human, and hence the mischief begins.

Theseus, played nobly by Christian R. Gibbs, is set to marry Hippolyta, played with confident grace by Melissa Marie Hmelnicky. Their nuptials will take place in a few days to much fanfare.

Egeus, played by a distraught Toni Rae Salmi as Mother Egeus, has a problem.

Her daughter, Hermia, a more than fiesty Jenna Berk, will not marry her mother’s chosen beloved, Demetrius, played with sleepy-eyed determination by Robert Pike.

She’d rather marry romantic Lysander, played romantically by Danny Cackley.

Meanwhile, Hermia’s childhood friend, Helena, played aristocratically by Rachel Viele, can’t keep her hands off Demetrius.

Egeus is angry: if her daughter won’t marry her choice, she wants death or the nunnery.

Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

(From left:) Jon Jon Johnson (Starveling), Zach Brewster-Geisz (Bottom), Annalisa Dias (Flute), Erika Jones (Snout), and Daven Ralston (Puck). Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Meanwhile, puppet designer Alex Vernon and a host of puppeteers give us Oberon (Mr. Gibbs) and Titania (Ms. Hmelnicky). Oberon and Titania are having a tiff over the fate of a young Indian prince. Hippolyta will not obey him.

So Oberon calls Puck to punish his wife: the magic juice of a special flower will make her fall in love with the next “beast” she sees, and Puck is just the fairy woman for the job.

That’s where Quince (Ms. Salmi) and Bottom, played with delightful bravado by Zach Brewster-Geisz, enter the scene. They and their working class crew of Starveling (Jon Jon Johnson), Flute (Annalisa Dias), Snug (Linda Bard), and Snout (Erika Jones) will put on a tragedy for the King’s wedding.

As tragedies are meant for the learned class, you can bet this one’s a farce.

The whole ensemble does a fine job, with the four young lovers getting a particularly deep bow.

(From left:) Robert Pike (Demetrius), Jenna Berk (Hermia), Rachel Viele (Helena), Danny Cackley (Lysander). Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

(From left:) Robert Pike (Demetrius), Jenna Berk (Hermia), Rachel Viele
(Helena), and Danny Cackley (Lysander). Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Berk’s fiesty Hermia goes after Viele’s not so demure Helena, a bout which nevertheless leaves the long legged Helena running like a frightened chicken through the forest.

Additionally, the raging fight scenes between Cackley’s Lysander and Pike’s Demetrius are a hoot that keeps on hooting, with the choreography unattributed.

Meanwhile, a funny Bottom saves his best for last when he is almost upstaged by three dogs. He ends up taking one of them home.

Director Randy Baker blends the script’s various worlds well, but he really finds the right mixture of mischief and style in this Midsummer’s Act 2, where the convergence of situational antics, physical buffoonery, puppet Punch and Judy, and witty word play leave the audience guffawing.

Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Daven Ralston (Puck). Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Sets and costumes by Debra Kim Sivigny, with lighting by Katie McCreary, choreography by Elena Velasco, and props by Britney Mongold, lend the production a simple rustic feel, even as they colorfully delineate the play’s characters and plots. There is just enough touch of Indonesia and its Wayang puppet theatre to give context to the production’s musical score.

Music Director James Bigbee Garver has assembled an assortment of percussive instruments, which members of the ensemble play, to underscore and bring pep to Shakespeare’s scenes and dialogue. The results are truly energizing.

As Washington continues its decades’ long love affair with Shakespeare, WSC Avant Bard’s unique contribution to the vision of what Shakespeare means to the 21st century remains vital.

Sure, he’s British. Sure, he uses that funny language. And sure, his world’s full of kings and fairies and lower-class buffoons.

More than any other playwright, however, Shakespeare inspires theatre artists to think in new and exciting ways, outside the box (as some like to say), not really to change the box but to give that box a different look and guise.

Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes with an intermission.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays through February 7, 2016, at Avant Bard performing at Guston Arts Center, Theatre Two – 2700 South Lang Street,  in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 418-4808, or purchase them online.

LINKS:
Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: Part 1: Annalisa Dias.

Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: Part 2: Jon Jon Johnson.

Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: Part 3: Zach Brewster-Geisz.

Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Part 4: Linda Bard.

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