Although A Midsummer Night's Dream is frequently cited as one of Shakespeare's most delightful and popular plays, you'd never know it if your sole criterion was Actors' Shakespeare Project's current chore of a production, playing at Cambridge's Multicutural Arts Center through June 4.
The production, directed with uneven calamity by Patrick Swanson, takes its inspiration from Peter Brook's landmark 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production, with its pristine white box of a set. But other than serving as a concept for the design (set by Eric Levenson), nothing binds the concept with the staging or the performances, resulting in a rather chaotic production.
While it might be appropriate for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its meddlesome fairies and goofy mechanicals, to be a little chaotic, perhaps not to the point where it feels as if you're eavesdropping on someone's playtime, unsure of what game they're even playing.
Hermia (Elle Borders) is in love with Lysander (a confident and charming Jake Athyal), but she has been promised to Demetrius (Mac Young) by her father, Egeus, and the law is on his side. The matter is before Theseus, Duke of Athens, who has himself just announced his upcoming marriage to Hippolyta. Hermia is told to abide by her father's wishes, live out her life as a nun, or be put to death. But Demetrius has his own problems: He was recently engaged to Hermia's friend Helena (Monica Giordano), who is still in love with him. Out of options, Lysander and Hermia decide to elope and set off into the woods to begin their escape. Demetrius sets off after Hermia, and so, too, does Helena in pursuit of Demetrius.
Totally unrelated to the four lovers is a group of laborers-turned-terrible-actors, led by Nick Bottom (a show-stealing Steven Barkhimer), who have also taken to the woods in order to rehearse for Pyramus and Thisbe, a play that they will perform at the marriage of Theseus.
But the woods are a magical place filled with mischievous fairies that get a kick out of interfering with human matters. Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen (played by Equiano Mosieri and a radiant Paula Plum) are in dispute about the ownership of a changeling boy, the son of one of Titania's worshippers. It turns out that there's a flower in the enchanted woods that, when brushed over the eyes of someone as they sleep, they will fall in love with the first thing they see when they wake up.
Oberon has Puck, his jester and servant (played with punkish likability by Sarah Newhouse), apply the flower to Titania first (out of anger), and then Dimitrius (out of pity). Oberon had seen Helena begging Dimitrius to take her back and forget about Hermia, and he took pity on her, deciding he would intervene.
But Puck gets it wrong and mistakenly applies the flower to Lysander instead, confusing things even more. Puck also decides to turn Bottom into a donkey, who Titania will gaze upon first upon her wake.
One of the more amusing moments in this production is the seduction scene between Titania and Bottom, though it might have been funnier if he actually had the head of an ass rather than a flappy winter hat and a clown nose (costumes by Jessica Pribble).
Some spells are reversed, the lovers are set right, Titania and Oberon reconcile, and the mechanical's play is finally performed at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. When everything is ultimately wrapped up in a tidy bow at the end, it's hard not to think: all that tedium for this?
Still, there are two remarkable things about this Midsummer Night's Dream: the original music and sound design of David Reiffel, and the performance of Steven Barkhimer, who stops the show in the second act, when he reaches a new stratosphere of comedic genius during the 11th-hour play-within-a-play.
Cellist Rob Bethel sits above the stage and provides live accompaniment on several instruments and household objects throughout, occasionally blended with prerecorded sounds, to colossal effect. Reiffel's music is the only design element of this production that creates any real mood. That said, a major problem here is that a lot of what is spoken is indiscernible, with the stage sounding like an echo chamber.
And though there's not much delight to be found in this Midsummer, the work of Reiffel and Barkhimer is not insignificant. Everything else, however, feels like being on the outside of a very long and very white echo chamber of an inside joke.
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