Elm Shakespeare Company’s production of William Shakespare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — now playing in Edgerton Park until Sept. 4 — begins with yipping, barking, and marching, the first signs of a war between Greek soldiers and Amazon warriors that breaks out all over the set. That is, until the combatants freeze, comically, mid-swing, mid-yelp, almost mid-fall, so that an announcer can stride onstage to say the usual thanks and tell audience members to turn their cell phones off.
When she departs, the battle continues, just long enough for veterans of the play to realize that this is the battle in which Theseus (Dave Demke), now ruler of Athens, bests the Amazon Hippolyta (Tai Verley) in combat and then plans to make her his wife.
Both the noisy battle (which isn’t in the script) and its absurd interruption are a sign to the audience that this won’t be an entirely straightforward production of Midsummer. Some liberties, some chances, will be taken. Some interesting choices will be made. Will they pan out?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream — which has been produced a few times in the New Haven area in recent years — is a play ripe for experimentation and reinterpretation.
In its initial conflict, two young lovers in Athens, Lysander (Steven Godoy) and Hermia (Anna Paratore), are in love and want to marry. Hermia’s family objects to the union, preferring another suitor, Demetrius (Anthony Peeples). Demetrius himself would love to marry Hermia; at the same time, he spurns the love of a young woman named Helena (Stephanie Jean Lane) who would rather have Demetrius to herself. Desperate, Lysander and Hermia run off into the forest outside of Athens with plans to elope. Demetrius and Helena follow.
Meanwhile, in the woods outside of Athens, the fairy queen and king, Titania (Kristin Wold) and Oberon (Charles Frederick Secrease), are in dispute, as it appears they often are. This time, it’s over Titania’s affection for a young servant. Oberon wants the servant for himself. So enlists his right-hand fairy, Puck (Evan Gambardella), to cast a spell on Titania while she’s sleeping that will make her fall in love, madly, with the first (hopefully vile) thing she sees. As long as he’s meddling, having come across the Athenian would-be lovers, he instructs Puck to use the same spell — judiciously — on them, too, to straighten out their situation.
At the same time that all this is happening, a crew of amateur actors, having secured a spot to perform a play in Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s wedding ceremony, have headed off into the woods to practice. Remembering Oberon’s wish to have Titania be smitten with something hideous, Puck works mischief on the actors’ would-be leader, a man named Nick Bottom (Raphael Massie).
A lot of magical mayhem ensues — maybe needless to say, Puck makes some mistakes — and in the end, isn’t entirely resolved. Yes, everyone gets married, and yes, the acting troupe gets to perform its play (within a play). But Bottom is turned into an animal and back again, and is not the same man afterward. And some of the enchantment lingers after the play is over, along with some very messy questions about love and its power to coerce, to make people do things that maybe they might not otherwise do.
The open-endedness of the ending, and the absurdly sublime heights the play reaches, mean that directors and actors have a lot of choices to make. Productions often go for the sublime. There are moments — particularly when Bottom wakes up from his enchantment, and in a eulogy delivered in the play-within-a-play, delivered by amateur actor Francis Flute (Jeremy Funke) — when Shakespeare can be said to have proved his genius. Played a certain way, they can be transforming (in Bottom’s case) and devastating (in Flute’s), and in the context of the play’s often manic comedy, Midsummer can be quite an emotional ride.
But — in another testament to the genius of the play — it can all be played as an elaborate caper, and in director Tina Packer’s production here, a somewhat dangerous one. In Massie’s hands, the character of Nick Bottom is less head-in-the-clouds dreamer than irrepressible ham, often to great comedic effect. His experience with magic is more invigorating than transforming.
Likewise, Flute isn’t an amateur actor who suddenly finds his chops when called upon; he just can’t ever find his footing, like the rest of his troupe (again, serving the comedy).
Indeed, the humans in the play are, pretty much to a person, not particularly observant, especially compared to the fairies in the woods, whom Packer imbues with first comedic and then real menace. Secrease brings out the ways in which Oberon is way too fond of messing with other people’s lives. Gambardella plays Puck as more than mischievous; he’s borderline deranged. The hapless lovers in the woods are, it’s clear, no match for them.
But Packer doesn’t lean too hard into the uncomfortable questions embedded in the play; in tilting the play hard toward comedy, she leaves them as nagging doubts rather than overwhelming concerns.
To some, this production might thus leave some emotional cards on the table. But it also reminds us that Shakespeare’s fantasy is, in the end, itself an intense dream, and one that you can take as seriously — or not — as you want to when you wake up.
Elm Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays in Edgerton Park, 75 Cliff St., from August 25-28, 30-31, and Sept. 1-4. All shows are at 8 p.m. Admission is free. Bring a chair or a blanket.