YOU'LL CATCH NO CATNAPS WITH AMERICAN SHAKESPEARE CENTER'S 'A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM'

CHARLES CULBERTSON • FOOTLIGHTS AND SPOTLIGHTS • FEBRUARY 19, 2009

    Consider yourself forewarned. If you're not ready to laugh uproariously, cheer out loud or applaud until your hands hurt, then "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Blackfriars Playhouse probably isn't the place for you.

On second thought, maybe it is. What better way to obliterate your mid-winter ennui than with a slam-bang production of one of Shakespeare's most popular plays? And believe me, if this staging by the American Shakespeare Center doesn't shake you out of your doldrums, then an electrocardiograph might not be a bad idea.

When I reviewed "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Blackfriars back in 2004, I doubted whether anyone could ever top it. I was wrong. The ASC has outdone itself. This production — crafted by the actors in a matter of days using no directors or designers — has more fire, panache and appeal than any dozen other interpretations I have seen combined.

The play's program notes are excellent at condensing three interlocking plots into a page full of bullet points, so I won't waste space here with a story summary. Suffice it to say that the play is about young lovers, mischievous sprites and a troupe of traveling actors. Because Shakespeare presents them in clearly defined clusters, there is never any confusion over who's who, even though most of the cast appear in more than one role.

Gregory Jon Phelps, Miriam Donald, Sarah Fallon and Chris Johnston are marvelous as the fairy-bedazzled lovers who spend most of the play alternately pursuing or avoiding one another. Their performances are filled with spirit, energy and great humor. And it really doesn't matter who loves who at any given moment; the audience loves 'em all.

The casting of Rene Thornton Jr. and Alyssa Wilmoth as king and queen of the fairies is particularly good. I've seen productions in which these two characters serve almost as set pieces, moving destroyer-like around the stage and launching lines like depth charges. But in Thornton and Wilmoth we have powerhouse actors who move and writhe and seethe, and hold the story's threads together with fluidity, authority and clarity.

Veteran ASC performer Benjamin Curns imbues the ever-busy Puck with a masculinity not usually associated with the character. He's impish, to be sure, and up to no good, but Curns achieves it all with power and force. I've never been much of a fan of the pixie version of Puck; I like this one a lot better.

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with this play that the wildest and most hilarious moments occur when the Mechanicals — a group of traveling actors — take to the stage. Led by Aaron Hochhalter as Quince, these guys make the players in "Noises Off" look competent and sophisticated. Shakespeare obviously had a great deal of fun writing their parts, mostly, I assume, because he knew someone just like each and every one of them.

Of course, it is Bottom, the actor whose head is turned into that of an ass, who provides us with the most riotous fun, especially in the hands of the incomparable John Harrell. Now, I'm not saying that Harrell is a ham or a scene-stealer, or anything like that, but — oh, hell, who am I trying to kid? Harrell is both of those things, big time, and his outrageously funny performance very nearly makes off with the whole play. Bottom is the distillation of every actor who has ever lived, and Harrell captures him in the most uproarious fashion imaginable.

The cast also features Christopher Seiler, Erin Baird, Thomas Keegan, Nolan Carey and Victoria Reinsel.

Full Article: http://www.newsleader.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/200902190445/ENTERTAINMENT03/902190305

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