On opening night at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival this summer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream threatened to become King Lear.
Not literally, of course. But a half hour into a streamlined adaptation of the classic comedy, directed by Matt Pfeiffer and presented on a specially constructed open-air stage, a few stray drops of rain began to fall. As the fairy queen Titania (Eleanor Handley) upbraided her husband, Oberon (Lindsay Smiling), for his inconstancy, an omnipresent voice announced that the performance would not continue. The culprit: reports of thunder and lightning in the area.
I encountered no wild weather on my lengthy drive back to Philly, which left me wondering if the production team jumped the gun by sending us home. Then again, we are still living in the “abundance of caution” age. Still, I made sure to rebook my tickets for a night with a perfect forecast.
In the end, I hardly minded making the 90-minute journey a second time. Coupled with delightfully warm weather and the company of ebullient, grateful audience members all around me, Shakespeare’s enduring comedy of mismatched lovers and spritely spirits truly lived up to its name.
Pfeiffer previously helmed Midsummer at the Arden Theatre in 2017, a hipsterish production that was entertaining but piecemeal. Although the current staging isn’t short on modern elements—not least Olivera Gajic’s era-eliding costumes—it employs a style that feels more aligned with historical practices. The large company functions as a unified troupe, with music and pageantry central to the story’s realization. This creates an atmosphere of free-spirited joyousness that’s overly welcome this particular summer.
A successful realization of this play must knit together its disparate but intersecting components. How should one fuse the hormone-charged Athenian lovers, the ethereal kingdom of Oberon and Titania, and those rascally Rude Mechanicals? The answer here seems to be through broad humor. Rarely have I seen a Midsummer so attuned to slapstick.
Take those lovers. I didn’t expect Luigi Sottile’s Lysander to show himself such a dexterous physical comedian, but here he executes a pratfall par excellence. Even the usually dour Hermia benefits from a dose of zaniness in Kathryn Tkel’s performance. Brett Ashley Robinson’s forlorn Helena enters wailing “You Oughta Know,” and her emotions, good and bad, remain pitched at that level. It’s wonderful to be reminded that Robinson and her Demetrius, Akeem Davis—both fine dramatic actors—are equally adept at comedy.
By contrast, Smiling and Handley convincingly and poignantly convey Oberon and Titania’s marital strife, bringing human grounding to their otherworldliness. Each occasionally overplays the Bard’s bawdy double entendres, but that’s ultimately in keeping with the overall energy of the production. (As is common now, the pair are also cast as Theseus and Hippolyta, the earthly royals whose nuptials set the action in motion.)
A welcome dream
To use their own words, I nearly always find the Rude Mechanicals tedious—but rarely brief. That proved true again here, although the bushily mustachioed, Hawaiian-shirted Bottom of Ian Merrill Peakes is full of sly comic vigor. Still, the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play could be trimmed even further, and others in the merry band could punctuate their line readings with fewer winking exclamation points. (The same could be said for Mary Tuomanen’s glam-rocker Puck, who courts the audience’s adoration a little too cloyingly.)
The spirit of playfulness that the Rude Mechanicals represent is most welcome, though—and so is the lovely music (composed and arranged by Alex Bechtel and executed by many talented artists) that wafts throughout the show. There are plenty of pre-Covid rituals I’m happy to assign to the ash heap of history, but al fresco Shakespeare, performed ecstatically on a balmy summer night, isn’t one of them. More than ever, it feels like a dream come true.
What, When, Where
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Matt Pfeiffer. Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Through August 1, 2021, at the Air Products Open Air Theatre, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, Pennsylvania. (610) 282-WILL or pashakespeare.org.
In addition to in-person performances, a live-streamed version of the production will be available July 20-31.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is performed outdoors. Patrons are asked to bring their own lawn chairs. Masks are optional in the outdoor performance space but must be worn to enter any building on the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival campus, regardless of vaccination status. A full list of PSF Covid-19 safety protocols can be found here.
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival campus is fully accessible, with ample free designated parking. An ASL-interpreted and audio-described performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be held on July 21, 2021, at 6:30pm.