Rocco Sisto, David Joseph, Kelly Galvin, and Michael F. Toomey in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Tony Simotes, at Shakespeare & Company.
Rocco Sisto, David Joseph, Kelly Galvin, and Michael F. Toomey in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Tony Simotes, at Shakespeare & Company.
(© Kevin Sprague)

A Midsummer Night's Dream has often been performed by Shakespeare & Company, starting with the theater's first season in 1978. The productions back then were presented outdoors, allowing fairies to perch in tree branches surrounding the natural bowl of an auditorium. After its early years, Shakespeare & Company moved indoors, where it is currently staging its shows on a three-quarter thrust space, with balcony overhead, recalling Shakespeare's Globe.

For this summer's revival of A Midsummer Night's Dream, director Tony Simotes has shifted the time and place from the court of Athens and its environs to New Orleans in the 1920s, allowing the play's eccentric characters to revel in the intoxicating jazz rhythms of the age. Because Dream is shot through with music, the change works to advantage. The actors, decked out in Deborah A. Brothers colorful period costumes, are able to strut their musical stuff — along with occasional hints of Southern accents.

The play's opening, weighed down by the obligatory long expository scene, starts off slowly in Theseus' court. Rocco Sisto plays Theseus and Oberon, and Merritt Jansen joins him as Hippolyta and Titania. But the play jolts into life when the scene moves to the woods for the rehearsals of the amateur actors and when the lovers, with their vacillating affections, spring into action. The sextet of clowns is led by a loosey-goosey Johnny Lee Davenport in a most endearing portrayal of Bottom, singing and jiving his way through the role. Jonathan Epstein appears as the dictatorial Peter Quince, dressed like Colonel Sanders and sporting an ill-fitting, blond wig.

In addition to conjuring up the atmosphere of New Orleans through its music, Simotes has placed the lovers at the center of the production. Known best for his skill as a fight director, he has blocked the quartet's knockabout, bare-knuckle fights as physical encounters, as if these actors had trained at a boxing gym rather than a conservatory.

When it comes to the ensemble, Simotes ignores traditional ethnic and gender casting. The lovers — Kelly Galvin, Cloteal L. Horne, David Joseph, and Colby Lewis — are young, stunning in appearance, and fearless in enduring the bangs and blows they swing at each other. The rustics, who are always funny, becoming downright hilarious in their Act 2 musical interlude, which finds Epstein on the trombone and Ingram playing a mean ukelele. Alexander Sovronsky, who arranged the music, also performs on clarinet, violin, and ukulele while portraying Flute and Thisbe in the play-within-a-play. Annette Miller is cast as Snug, the joiner, a gypsy woman can hoist a cigar and be perfectly comfortable with the men.

Simotes' version of A Midsummer Night's Dream does have a few problems finding its way through the New Orleans streets and bayous (turning Shakespeare's play into musical theater seems to come with a syncopated beat), but the comraderie among the actors onstage, and their manner of speaking Shakespeare's language, makes the production accessible and timely.