Déjà vu hit as soon as I entered the Arden Theatre Company's mainstage space to see William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Director Matt Pfeiffer's production looks, sounds, and feels much like his staging of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew last summer at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.
One might expect a haunting feeling, given that Midsummer opened the Arden's F. Otto Haas Theater in 1998, but this new production doesn't conjure that happy memory.
Paige Hathaway's scenic design suggests an empty theater, this one with storage (chairs artfully hung on the brick walls), rope rigging, a worn plank floor, and the kind of industrial, metallic upper deck one might find backstage -- much like the design in Pfeiffer's Shrew. Actors gather around a modest upright piano, playing instruments and singing songs by Shrew composer and sound designer Alex Bechtel, wearing contemporary clothes by Shrew designer Olivera Gajic. The inventive lighting, starting with backstage work lights, was by Shrew designer Thom Weaver.
So, yes, déjà vu. Yet I appreciate why. Pfeiffer wants a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. He hopes to foment the suggestion that the play is created before us, without artifice and with a contemporary aesthetic. He wants to accompany it all with enjoyable music.
Sliding, not slipping
Is the mercurial Pfeiffer, Philadelphia theater's busiest director, slipping? Recycling? Only a few minutes show that, no, his Midsummer work is more a sliding of good ideas from one situation to another -- deliberate choices, not lazy at all. Let me count the ways:
1. The cast performs the pre-show music, as well as music throughout the play, with joyful sincerity;
2. The costumes define characters well without boxing them into a specific time or place, subtly color-code them in relationships, and allow quick changes for the eight of ten performers who double roles;
3. The bare stage keeps the actors in control of the play and the staging open and fluid for audience on all three sides;
4. The music not only sets a pleasant tone, but Bechtel's song snippets help bridge the 400-year gap between Shakespeare's Athenians and today's audience without replacing, repeating, or one-upping Shakespeare's dialogue.
Trust me -- or, better yet, trust the excited attention I witnessed from several hundred high school students, who typically won't suffer a moment of confusion, boredom, insincerity, or condescension.
Love and magic
Pfeiffer's cast plays Midsummer fast and fun, but never glib or superficial. Mary Tuomanen's mischievous fairy Puck is an androgynous skater punk who often interacts with the audience; she's also a sly interloper in King Theseus's court. Lindsay Smiling plays Theseus and Oberon, the fairy king. Katharine Powell is nemesis to both, as Theseus's warrior bride Hippolyta and Oberon's defiant queen Titania.
The four young lovers are played by Rachel Camp, Taysha Canales, Sean Close, and Brandon Pierce. Doubling them, along with Doug O'Hara, as the "rude mechanicals" rehearsing a play for the king's nuptials seems like a cost-cutting move, but it's a gift to the actors, plus a joy for the audience. Their disparate characters, typically cast without doubling and absent for long stretches, make quick transformations and become like two sides of single coins, showcasing the actors' talents and connecting their worlds.
Dan Hodge plays only amateur divo Nick Bottom -- who spends much of the show magically transformed for Puck's amusement. I’ve seen dozens of actors succeed as Bottom, inevitably a bravura comic role, but Hodge makes it truly and gloriously hilarious. He wrings out every laugh possible, while still maintaining Bottom's intelligence, ingenuity, and vulnerability.
Eliana Fabiyi floats through the play, often above the action, as the production's primary musician and sound source. She’s particularly adept at the many subtle notes accompanying the company’s magic tricks.
Ultimately, this Midsummer Night's Dream not only tells a brisk tale about love and magic in romantic encounters, but also reveals the love and magic of producing theater. That splendid combination is worth a little déjà vu.