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Ryan Conarro, Renata Friedman, Andrew Schwartz, and
Lindsay Rae Taylor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Every year, without fail, they arrive along with the warm weather: productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream. From parks to parking lots, they're everywhere. The first big staging of Shakespeare's classic this season comes from the hot and rising Aquila Theatre Company, which most recently produced The Comedy of Errors and, prior to that, got a lot of attention with a retro 1960s Much Ado About Nothing. The company has now brought its Midsummer to the New Victory Theater.

Aquila gives this fairyland comedy a stately production on a mostly black stage highlighted by the soft colors of the characters' costumes and a multitude of umbrellas that are cleverly used to create the woods where the bulk of the play's action takes place. (The set design is by Peter Meineck and Robert Richmond, also the show's producer and director, respectively.) In the woods, Hermia and her love, Lysander, steal away in the night so that she will not have to marry Demetrius, whom her father insists she must wed. Helena, in love with Demetrius and wishing to win his trust, warns him of Hermia's escape and he goes after her.

Meanwhile, the fairy king Oberon, who presides over the woods, is angry at his wife, Titania. So he sends his mischievous servant Puck to use the power of a magical flower to make the sleeping Titania fall in love with the first person she sees upon waking. That person turns out to be Nick Bottom, a weaver who is rehearsing a play in the woods with his fellow craftsmen/amateur actors. To make matters worse for Titania, Puck has turned Bottom's head into that of an ass by the time she sets eyes on him. While he's making matches, Oberon asks Puck to use the aphrodisiacal bloom to fix up the Hermia-Lysander-Demetrius-Helena situation, but Puck botches the job, and soon Lysander and Demetrius are competing for Helena instead. Of course, everything eventually works out happily for humans and fairies alike.

There's little lacking in Aquila's consistently enchanting and entertaining realization of this classic. The four young lovers are suitably comic and sweet, Bottom and his ragtag group of players are endearingly goofy, Oberon and Titania are engaging as the fighting fairies, and every minute Puck is onstage is a joy. It's amazing how well the company establishes and keeps the mystical mood with so little stage dressing; in addition to those umbrellas and the odd prop, there is only Anthony Cochrane's music and David Dunford's lighting to help. The company has not chosen a definite time and place to dictate the look of the production; the fooolish mortals' costumes seem early-20th-century-British while Oberon and Titania wear more glittery garments.

The New Victory is a family theater, but don't go in expecting a pointedly kid-friendly Midsummer. The production is not kid-unfriendly, mind you, but it does run a good two and half hours and the Shakespearean verse is not simplified in any way. The audience laughter indicates where adults and youngsters part ways in the sense of humor department. As Helena, actress Renata Friedman gets a lot of laughs from the little ones with her over-the-top characterization, and they sure love the woolly-haired, donkey-eared Richard Willis as Bottom in his half-man, half-ass state. Adults will likely find themselves more appreciative of the excellent performances given by Lindsay Rae Taylor as Hermia, Lisa Carter as Titania, and particularly Kenn Sabberton as Oberon. But theatergoers of all ages will surely agree that Louis Butelli is superlative as Puck: With his shaved head, Mephistophelean goatee, and toothy grin, Butelli looks like John Malkovich at his most playfully devilish.

There are a mere eight players in this production, but the Aquila troupe handles twice that many roles with ease. During the curtain call, a boy behind me asked anxiously, "Where are all the others? Why aren't they bowing too?" Clearly, Aquila's theatrical magic is as potent as anything Oberon himself could conjure.

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