One of the best moments in the life of any serious theatergoer is the thrilling realization that a production has inspired in you a new appreciation for a play you thought you had grown tired of.
William Shakespeare's oft-produced, oft-performed, perennial comedy “A Midsummer Night's Dream” has been mounted in every conceivable fashion, and is a play that this reviewer thought he could have gone another 10 years without seeing again. Enter Bristol Old Vic and the incomparable Handspring Puppet Company, the award-winning collaboration that wowed audiences last year with the Tony Award winning “War Horse,” to weave a “Dream” that is full of theatrical magic. I left the theater feeling as though my own eyes had been sprinkled with the magical flowers that imbue love into the beholder.
This production, a collaboration with The Kennedy Center, Luminato, and Spoleto Festival USA, played in London at Bristol Old Vic earlier this year before moving to the Dock Street Theatre. The play is an exercise in theatrical magic, pure and simple. Tom Morris (who conceived “War Horse”) and Adrian Kohler (co-founder and artistic director of Handspring) weave their captivating spell through Shakespeare's tale of fairies and lovers, and they do it deftly. Theirs is a magical world, where masks and puppets and props come to life with ease and wonder.
Kohler has not risen above the work of “War Horse,” with its living animals that the actors ride, but he and his team have created some great wonders for this “Midsummer Night's Dream,” most notably is the sprite servant and trickster Puck, an amalgamation of tools brought to various forms by a trio of actors. Puck, made up of a basket, gavel and other assorted items, is transformed and dances around the stage. He is never overshadowed by the actors controlling and voicing him. Like Joey in “War Horse,” he exists all on his own; the actors disappear.
Oberon the fairy king (played by David Ricardo Pearce) towers above the stage as a mask and puppet master hand, operated by the actor. Pearce is captivating and gives his Oberon an authority and majesty that makes his meddling and scheming not seem vicious or evil. Saskia Portway holds a similar mask above her head as Titania, the fairy queen. Portway's voice as Titania is powerful and awe-inspiring. The beginning of her “forgeries of jealousy” speech, with her fairies (the ensemble cast using planks of wood that also serve a myriad of other purposes) forming giant spread wings behind her, was the most visually impressive moment in a play filled with them.
The move from the U.K. has not harmed the production at all. The beauty of the Dock Street's renovated spaces shines under the lighting design by Philip Gladwell. Neither has the fact that the play itself has been done to death, even recently here in Charleston. There are a few moments in the near three-hour run time that sag a bit, but for the most part the production whirs by as every few minutes a new theatrical moment of wonder is introduced. And the players, anchored by a hilarious performance by Miltos Yerolemou as Bottom (Yerolemou played Syrio Forrel on HBO's “Game of Thrones”), nail the often-tedious play-within-the-play that encompasses the final half hour. Speaking of Bottom, his transformation into the infamous donkey is hilarious. No more spoilers from me.
While this production does not inspire in me the same tears for the possibilities of the live stage that “War Horse” did two years ago, this particular production has definitely brought back my excitement and enjoyment of Shakespeare's “Dream.” Like its puppets, the play is well crafted and well handled.
Michael Smallwood is an actor in Charleston.