By Ruth Ross
Well, the current production of A Midwinter Night’s Dream onstage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, will quickly disabuse you of those judgments! It is a tour de force of silliness, great physical comedy and terrific performances by a troupe of 13 actors playing 26 roles—often changing costumes in what seem like mere seconds! I guess you could say that the real stars of the evening are the backstage dressers, who remain uncredited! (Above left: David Foubert as Bottom and Jeffrey Marc Alkins as Peter Quince playing Moon)
Yes, you heard that right: A MidWINTER Night’s Dream, a “reseasoned” version by Bonnie J. Monte and Joe Discher of one of the Bard’s funniest plays—and the one most people know. Monte and Discher have accomplished this feat by changing fewer than 100 of the play’s 2,100 lines, “causing this most beloved of comedies to come to life and thrill in a whole new way,” according to Discher’s original notes. The resulting transformation is seamless and unobtrusive, even to those familiar with the original’s poetry.
Last seen on the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre’s Main Stage in 2002, A Midwinter Night’s Dream follows four sets of couples—two young and two older—who grapple with the vicissitudes of love, aided and abetted (and confused) by the über-spirit Puck, while a group of “rude mechanicals” practice and prepare a play in honor of the Duke’s upcoming nuptials. Of course, in a Shakespearean comedy all ends well, with three weddings and a successful, if side-splitting performance. It is a rollicking and fitting final production of a stellar season.
Directed by Brian B. Crowe (soon to replace Monte as the theater’s Artistic Director), the action moves along swiftly and smoothly, without feeling rushed. As usual, the actors are exceptional. René Thornton Jr. as Duke Theseus and the fairy king Oberon and Jessica Ires Morris as Theseus’ intended Hippolyta and Oberon’s obstreperous spouse Titania tie the real and fantastical realms together very well. Thornton is convincingly majestic and avuncular as the Duke and maliciously manipulative as Oberon; Morris plays Hippolyta as reserved and Titania as imperious and headstrong and seems to have a fine time with the latter.
The other two couples are less sympathetic, seeing as they tend to whine a lot, especially the women. But the scene wherein Helena, played by Fiona Robberson, and her former best friend Hermia, played by Emily S. Chang, insult each other about their physical shortcomings is riotous. Crowe has skillfully choreographed the “fight” with lots of physical humor to go with the verbal dueling. Matching the girls’ performances, Isaac Hickox-Young is arrogantly smug as Lysander, and Christian Frost an appropriately caring Demetrius. (Left, L-R: Emily S. Chang as Hermia, Christian Frost as Demetrius, Isaac Hickox-Young as Lysander, and Fiona Robberson as Helena)
But the play belongs to the rude mechanicals, led by Bottom, the weaver, played by a very funny David Foubert (right, center). He just has to walk on stage to elicit a laugh! As Titania’s donkey-eared love and the lead in Pyramus and Thisbe, he is endearing and very funny. Keith Hale as Francis Flute/Thisbe (far right) and Eric Hoffmann as Snug/Lion (far left) add to the hilarity. In the play-within-a play, Hale really shines in the final scene, wherein costume problems bring down the house as he strives to maintain his dignity!
Over this insanity hovers Puck, Oberon’s jester and lieutenant, played by an ethereal Billie Wyatt (left) as a bit of an adorable doofus, which, of course, explains some of the mistakes she makes that result in pandemonium. Light and agile, Wyatt appears to float above the stage at times, reinforcing her spirit-ual nature! Her expressive face adds to her comedic performance.
In 2002, I recall the set as resembling a winter wonderland, laced with snowflakes and white fluff. This time round, Brian Ruggaber has designed a set more attuned, I think, to a harder, less welcoming world. Set inside an oval proscenium arch of white and aquamarine are trees covered in ice and a backdrop that suggests the icy rime one would find on windows and walls when vapor freezes—none of that fluffy stuff children like to play in (see top image)! Yao Chen has dressed the Athenian citizens in attire reminiscent of the 19th century; the fairies are clothed in white and sparkles. Andrew Hungerford’s lighting and Drew Sensue-Weinstein’s sound and original music further reinforce the otherworldly theme.
Yes, you may say that you’ve seen this play before, but I urge you to go to Madison to see its latest incarnation. A Midwinter Night’s Dream is so inventive and well-acted that Shakespeare would approve. And take the kids six and over: let this version be their introduction to Shakespeare, and they’ll be hooked. Their teachers will thank you!
A Midwinter Night’s Dream runs through December 31 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., in Madison. For information and tickets, call the box office at (973) 408-5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.