Sometimes an “easy,” accessible, oft-produced play can be a director’s greatest challenge: How do you transcend familiarity? How do you make a new production special without getting so gimmicky that all the audience will ultimately remember are the gimmicks? Shakespeare companies face this problem all the time. A certain notorious 1980s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest springs to mind: People tend to recall it as “the one with the sumo wrestler and the helicopter and W. C. Fields and Mae West” rather than “the one where Raul Julia was so terrific as Prospero.”
Of all the Bard’s canon, the play that most of us have seen most often is undoubtedly A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fantastic and funny and family-friendly, it’s a lightweight staple of outdoor summer festivals. Many elementary school kids get their first thespian experience enacting one of the “rude mechanicals” in a standalone version of the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play. Dream can be described with equal validity as “beloved” and “done to death.” So if you decide to put it on yet again, you’re probably either a neophyte launching a new community theater company or a consummate professional supremely confident in your ability to make it feel fresh and thrill your audience with rediscovery of its essential magic.
So a tip of the hat is due to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF), which is offering an audacious new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this summer under the direction of Eric Tucker, running in repertory with The Winter’s Tale and The Arabian Nights. Tucker’s spin on the challenge is to cast only five actors to play the 21 named parts. And what actors they are: longtime HVSF stalwart Nance Williamson, comic genius Jason O’Connell, Mark Bedard, Sean McNall and Joey Parsons. All are especially gifted at stage movement, adeptly employing body language to slide from one role to another in an instant. They have no costume changes to rely on beyond basic gymnastics togs, no props, no scenery (except for the stunning Hudson River backdrop at Boscobel, which certainly supplies the requisite magical setting). Mostly they vary their voices to distinguish between characters, especially when playing two or more in a particular scene. For example, when McNall has to show Demetrius conversing with Theseus, he has the former speaking in Spanglish.
The company takes a lot of such liberties, leaning heavily in the direction of a broad comedic approach to the material, even in the more dramatic passages. Sometimes this works wonderfully; sometimes it doesn’t. Williamson strikes just the right note of awkward, lovelorn, woebegone ditziness as Helena, a role that can come across as a bit whiny in less skilled hands. When O’Connell has Bottom play Pyramus in the voice of Marlon Brando playing Stanley Kowalski, it’s funny the first time, because O’Connell is an extremely funny guy; the second or third time, not so much. But he redeems himself by his contortions trying to appear stooping as Puck and supine as Bottom simultaneously when magically removing his own imaginary ass’s ears. One minor stroke of directorial brilliance was to interpret Snug the Joiner literally, with Bedard and Williamson playing conjoined twins speaking Snug’s lines in hilariously creepy unison. Together they got the most laughs of the whole evening.
It’s a zany, fun-filled performance that will delight all whose appetites for this particular play have become somewhat jaded. Because of the rapid switches between characters, it’s not the optimal production for introducing small children or other rank neophytes to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; they will likely find themselves somewhat confused a good deal of the time about who is doing or saying what to whom. But with a cast this versatile, if you already have a basic sense of which character gets which line, you’ll enjoy this version tremendously. Without resorting to the extremes of helicopters and sumo wrestlers, it’s not quite like any interpretation that you’ve seen before. So, mission accomplished.
Remaining performances of Dream will take place in the big white tent on the Boscobel lawn on July 25 and 31 (Teen Night) and August 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 19, 22, 25 and 28, with shows starting at 7:30 p.m. The grounds open two hours earlier if you’d like to picnic; there’s a nice little café right next to the theater tent. Ticket prices vary widely based on date, location and seating. For more information or to order tickets, call the box office at (845) 265-9575 or visit www.hvshakespeare.org.
Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream, July 25-August 28, Boscobel House & Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison; (845) 265-9575, https://hvshakespeare.org.