Thomas Derrah and Karen MacDonaldin A Midsummer Night's Dream(Photo © Richard Feldman)
Thomas Derrah and Karen MacDonald
in A Midsummer Night's Dream
(Photo © Richard Feldman)
Is more than a dash of magic too much to ask in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream? Martha Clarke's take on Shakespeare's fizziest comedy for the American Repertory Theatre is as somber as a stylish New York wardrobe.

Robert Israel has created a set for the production that's a pebble-strewn expanse of basic black punctuated by three grave-like traps and a ratty gray armchair. You half expect Godot to show up! Instead, we get a Puck (Jesse J. Perez) in the Caliban mode: misshapen, malevolent, and belled like a jester (or a killer cat). In a really cheesy effect, Puck's spells, as well as those conjured by the fairy king Oberon (John Campion), are amped to a fare-thee-well. Theseus (Campion again, indistinguishably pompous) and his consort and courtiers, including the mismatched young lovers, are outfitted in tattered, 19th-century garb (Israel did the costumes, too). They look scarcely better off than the ragtag company of Mechanicals. It's all very well to stress the dark side of Shakespeare's plays; indeed, it's chic to do so these days. But must "dark" equal "drab?"

It's left to the aerialized fairies -- a trio of guy-wired female dancers who tumble in slo-mo and do a lovely, languorous backstroke -- to provide visual interest. Clarke started out a choreographer and, clearly, her strengths and allegiances still lie in that arena. Unfortunately, a few dreamlike images amidst 2½ hours of ill-served text do not add up to an enchanted evening.

That Clarke is not anchored by Shakespeare's words becomes obvious in the oddly constrained blocking, which often has actors delivering key lines upstage. (They have to avoid those pits when they're not taking yet another tired pratfall.) The production is also seriously undercut by the actors' penchant -- part of a postmodern trend -- for stressing the rhymes in Shakespeare's couplets. Elizabethans may have been impressed with the playwright's unflagging ingenuity, but we've come to abjure the sing-song approach in favor of savoring the context and flow of the language, the extraordinary richness of imagery and conceptual depth.

Karen MacDonald, in the dual role of Hippolyta (soon-to-be duchess of Athens) and Titania (queen of the fairies), alone captures the magnificence of the text with her near-operatic range of voice and emotion. A founding member of the ART (in 1980), she has only recently returned to the fold, and deserves better backup. Thomas Derrah, another ART stalwart, is well suited to the role of the stage-hogging Bottom, but in donkey-face he's oddly muted -- his overly literal copulative thrusts notwithstanding. The real scene stealer is company vet Remo Airaldi; in the tiny role of Francis Flute, the piping-voiced Thisbe of the play within a play, this actor delights simply by under-emoting with dry sense of wit.

The young lovers, alas, are out of their depth -- although, as a Lysander who's at once hunky and awkward, Tug Coker shows promise. (He's a student at the ART's Institute for Advanced Training.) The catfight between Hermia (Michi Barall) and Helena (Katharine Powell) plays like a sitcom; a Valley Girl intonation is detectable in their disses.

The disconcerting mix of high and low culture extends to Titania's and Oberon's spat over the purloined servant boy, where it works to better effect. Their marital turmoil has a timeless and even topic-less quality; they could as easily be quarreling over who left the dishes in the sink. And that's the charm of this particular romp. What lover hasn't at times outright hated his or her beloved? It's a topsy-turvy world, Shakespeare seems to suggest, so whatever goes awry, you might as well blame the fairies. In any case, there's no need to get all heavy about it.