by William Shakespeare
Directed by Patrick Swanson
Actors’ Shakespeare Project
Multicultural Arts Center
May 10 – June 4, 2017
Set Designer: Eric Levenson; Lighting Designer: Deb Sullivan; Costume Designer: Jessica Pribble; Composer and Sound Designer: David Reiffel; Props and Puppet Designer: Elizabeth Rocha
Cellist: Rob Bethel
With Jake Athyal (Lysander), Steven Barkhimer (Bottom) , Elle Borders (Hermia), Monica Giordano (Helena), Equino Mosieri (Oberon/Theseus), Sarah Newhouse (Puck), Paul Plum (Titania/Hippolyta), Mac Young (Demetrius)
This play is done in so many ways and so frequently that it might be easy to approach it with an oh that again feeling. But the play is so innately funny and full of intrigue that it’s almost impossible to ignore it when it rolls around. And when, as in the current case, the production is particularly lively, fun, and inventively staged, its newness and vivacity shine right through its familiarity.
The great British stage director Peter Brook had done a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970 that went to Broadway and became historic. Its setting was austerely white but the staging was incredibly inventive and the words and spirit of the play rose up out of the abstract setting in a way that set a tone for many contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare.
Similarly, the current production emphasizes a stark white background, calling forth some of the innovations of that watershed Brook production of almost fifty years ago. In addition, however, much like the Brook production, this one adds all sorts of great embellishments that color and stimulate, elevating with humor and surprise the words as they arise out of the whiteness.
Puppets lowered down from the upper reaches of the set provide some of the fun. The addenda to the Bottom crew – Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote, and Mustard Seed, are all puppets, and so they should be. Those parts are small and there’s no need, given the constraints of contemporary theater, to make them more than puppets.
In addition, this production, like many of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project productions of the past, make use of doubling by cast members to fill out the roster. Here, wittily, the actors who play the four lovers – Elle Borders (Hermia, Peter Quince), Jake Athyal (Lysander, Francis Flute), Mac Young (Demetrius, Tom Snout), and Monica Giordano (Helena, Snug) – comprise the support crew for Bottom, and they all do a terrific job of creating sets of alternate characters.
Steven Barkhimer, who plays Bottom, is a comic marvel. Barkhimer can be a good serious actor. He was superb in the recent production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Lyric Stage and did a wonderful job in Central Square Theater’s production of Copenhagen a couple of years ago. But he is a natural comic actor and clown, and has performed that function in many of the ASP productions over the years. Here he is at his best. As the comic master of the amateur set of players bent on entertaining Theseus and Hippolyta for their impending wedding he carries it off with relaxed and hilarious gusto.
Elle Borders, who shone comedically in CompanyOne’s and ArtsEmerson’s An Octoroon last season and who here plays both the serious role of Hermia convincingly, and Peter Quince, one of the Bottom crew, who she evokes with the sort of panache and vaudevillian hilarity that she brought so easily to her tragicomic role in An Octoroon.
Rob Bethel, a cellist, rules from the center of the mezzanine, offering an array of sounds, in addition to the cello, which he plays with passionate assurance, from a set of other instruments including bowed crystal glassware and large, resounding bells. A one-man band with self-possession and a compelling presence, he provided great musical support throughout.
The rest of the class is excellent, including some noted actors like Paula Plum and Sarah Newhouse, familiar to ASP audiences, and some newer, younger ones, also very good.
The show is directed by Patrick Swanson who, years back, directed Alvin Epstein in a moving and dynamic ASP production of King Lear, produced in a hallway at Boston University. Sarah Newhouse, who gives a nuanced and energetic interpretation of Puck in the current production, played a compelling Cordelia in that memorable production.
Overall: Inventive staging, good acting overall with some notably good performances, great music, all serving to make one likely laugh and smile throughout.