In 1998, Arden Theatre Company opened their F. Otto Haas Stage with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Widely considered one of William Shakespeare’s lightest and most accessible plays, Midsummer follows two troubled couples and a cast of common players into the forest for a night of chaos at the hands of a few mischievous fairies. Now, as they approach their 30th anniversary season, the Arden has revived this classic with a new generation of Philadelphia’s brightest artists.
Barrymore Award-winning director Matt Pfeiffer navigates Shakespeare with a stripped down approach. Where other directors take great pains to build a world or a concept for their Shakespeare productions, Pfeiffer seems to almost remove the rules and boundaries, smartly and with grace. Worlds, fashions, and sensibilities mix together to form an organic, eclectic, and truly theatrical experience. It’s a startlingly simple approach: a group of people in a room telling a story and creating something magical with only the tools they have at their fingertips. Coupled with a deep respect for the text, Pfeiffer’s straightforwardness lends a casual feeling to the classic poetry, which eliminates a good deal of the austereness that could be a barrier to entry.
The result is Shakespeare that does a little bit of everything – side-splitting comedy, heart-wrenching melancholy, and an ebullient exercise for the imagination. One ingredient that cannot be ignored is Pfeiffer’s ongoing collaboration with composer and sound designer Alex Bechtel. Including both original and curated songs, Bechtel compiles a delicious mix tape to accompany Midsummer’s foibles of young love. From the onstage pre-show jam session to the soundtrack underscoring the action, the cast creates their own score live as they tote their guitars and accordions throughout the scenes. Full of whoops and hollers, and with the skillful twangling violin work of Eliana Fabiyi, Pfeiffer and Bechtel use music to set the mood for the celebratory ritual of theater, in this case, an intoxicatingly joyful gathering of friends under a canopy of starlight.
The company is led by Dan Hodge as the well-meaning would-be superstar Nick Bottom. Slim and unassuming, Hodge may not be the typical Bottom, but certainly hits all the right comedic notes and then some. Impeccable timing and a whip-smart sense of humor balance his intense sincerity, while he serves up some of the finest text work in the cast and possibly the city. With an inventive new take on Bottom’s crude transformation into an ass, Hodge shows off yet another skill with some masterful mask work as he brays his way into Titania’s heart.
In another corner of the forest, the four lovers spin and search in a frenzy of lust under the influence of the infamous juice of a purple flower. Rachel Camp (Helena) and Taysha Canales (Hermia) spar with great spunk as they ward off the misguided advances of the hapless Sean Close (Lysander) and Brandon J. Pierce (Demetrius). The four lovers then double as the Mechanicals, the rough-hewn tradesmen who make up the cast of Bottom’s great production, each dim-witted in their own way. Delivering one knock-out scene after another under the stalwart leadership of Doug Hara (Egeus/Quince), one might wish that the Mechanicals could take over the entire play. Especially unforgettable is Close’s brilliantly specific Thisbe going blow for blow with Hodge’s Pyramus in their turn as the ill-fated lovers of the pageant at the final wedding feast.
Serving as both fairies and royals are the cool Katharine Powell (Titania/Hippolyta) and rambunctious Lindsay Smiling (Oberon/Theseus), with Mary Tuomanen by their side – and sporting a shock of electric blue hair – as the clever Puck.
Paige Hathaway’s scenic design evokes a weathered downtown warehouse with stark steel ladders and a sumptuous moon hanging high over the various found objects in the background. At times the space seems to glow from every corner with the magical fairy ambience created by lighting designer Thom Weaver. Olivera Gajic’s costumes are a multifaceted blend of period, style, and common street clothes ranging from simple cargo shorts and flannel to a stunning gold statement for Titania’s grand entrance.
Despite being filled with many squabbles, the Arden’s Midsummer glows with a sense of love in all its forms – innocent, irrational, brotherly, unwavering. With a romantic spirit of camaraderie and connectedness, the often revisited story is reinvigorated here with a dose of much-needed laughter and light.
Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays through Sunday, April 9, 2017, at Arden Theatre Company – 40 North 2nd Street in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online.