Shakespeare or not, the world does not need another production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. We should just give it a rest for a decade, or until the theatre world has anything new to say about or with it. This DREAM, though it is often competent and occasionally engaging, is the same DREAM audiences have seen in adequate colleges and good high schools forever. It just needs a rest.
All of this is especially critical commentary for the Theatre at Monmouth, the Shakespearean Theatre of Maine, which is nestled in a stunning 97 year-old Victorian opera house. Especially critical because Monmouth is a theatre triumphantly devoted to the classics, and as such the aesthetic expectations would seem to be a bit higher than ordinary summer stock groups. Instead this DREAM was about as fresh as the century-old canopy of cherubic frescoes, beautiful carvings and hand-moulded plasterwork of old Cumston Hall.
Ordinarily I would say that even producing Shakespeare's most well- worn and common plays has worth if the intended audience has never been exposed to Shakespeare. But this company has inhabited Cumston Hall for nearly three decades, regularly producing quality Shakespeare for a returning and faithful audience. And the audience does return, as evidenced by the nearly sold-out house last Saturday night. The obvious question then remains: why not treat such a loyal following to something more than the predictable and ordinary?
The main culprit is director Michael O'Brien for attempting nothing more than dusting off the folio and propping this play on stage. While in the same vein, this DREAM hasn't the granduer or magnitude of Rhinehardt's 1935 film, the version that set the stage for most of this century. Nor does it have any of the poignancy of Peter Brook's 1970 production, the version that set the stage for the latter part of this century. O'Brien's DREAM is a world of hodge-podgey artificial plants, predictable Greek columns, and scant cuts of Mendelssohn-esque music in awkward places. Even the brilliant moon, the one stunning bit of spectacle on stage and perhaps the most important character in this play, couldn't raise this world out of the mundane.
That said, this production also contained one idea that could have been its salavation: a small herd of puppets following the Queen Titania. I longed to see that idea the cornerstone of a new world of fairies and supernaturals. Instead it was a side-thought, a flip way to get other actors on stage but not have to hire real actors.
The cast, however short a leash, gives the story as much life as they can. Robert Walsh's Oberon is upright, strong, and occasionally funny. Having fallen into the "fairy trap," that trap which leaves the majority of actors imitating what they think fairies must be like based on the thousand performances of DREAM that came before them, Walsh only intermittently finds new shades to Oberon, namely his humor. Joan Jubett's Titania is similarly trapped though Jubett is less Queenish and more sheer sexuality. Walsh's verility and Jubett's sexuality represents another path left unexplored.
The four lovers are less trapped and consequently more watchable. Dana Claire Gotlieb's Hermia is at once funny and beautiful, with an infectious blending of bold physicality and expressive vocal range. Devon Louise Jencks's Helena, when not oddly interrupting the verse with sobs, is a real talent to watch. Finding a kind of unpredictable humor, Jencks is the perfect clutsy, spurned lover. The best thing about Andrew Shulman's Demetrius and David Harbour's Lysander is their tight comic connection and hilarious physical bits. Harbour, having already played a supporting lead in THE MISER earlier that day, plays the title role in HAMLET on other nights at Monmouth. Listening to his near-hoarse and at times uncontrolled voice in DREAM, I couldn't help but wonder what his three-plus hour Hamlet would sound like only 24 hours later.
Geoffrey Molloy flogs Puck with all his might, but never seems to acheive anything more than a hyper-active, quasi-balletic elf badly in need of ritalin. This Puck, costumed as a miniture Jolly Green Giant, is part wrestler, part sprite, part goofy dancer, and Molloy blends all parts together with generous helpings of overacting. Molloy intends well and has all the signs of a thinking, eergetic actor well capable of more engaging stuff. But with nothing to do but copy other Pucks before him, Molloy's end result is Mickey Rooney on a lot of sugar.
Charles Weinstein, ordinarily a formidable comic actor, seems oddly cast as Bottom, never really embodying the kind of gregariousness, size and love that is Bottom. With stark receding hairline and Peter Lorre eyes, Weinstein almost seemed in another play at times, and not just different from the other actors, but sometimes different from himself from line to line. His erratic and sometimes spooky take on this loquacious weaver ran the gambit from funny to strange to incomprehensible, at times soliciting dead silence from the audience. Further, Bottom and the mechanicals are a band of brothers, but this band strangely seemed to hold little affection for their leader as evidenced in their forced reunion in the final act.
Otherwise the mechanicals are serviceable yet heartily falling victim to the trap of portraying these textured rustics as generic dumb guys. Only Joshua Scharback as the girly Flute seemed to punch through the ordinary and attain an original, personal performance. His work alone saved Act Five and ended the play on such a high note.
Monmouth's DREAM runs in rotating rep until August 30 with HAMLET, SHADOWLANDS, and THE MISER. Unless you want to introduce your children or other cloistered relatives to their first Shakespeare, skip this DREAM for another offering at Monmouth. I have seen productions of DREAM performed by seven actors. I have seen productions sporting an entire Beatles score. A recent production in London was set in the wealthy estate of a royal emphasizing the boredome of the idle rich. All of these productions, some succeeding, some not, have searched in earnest for new metaphors or meanings, their aims passionate and focused. Alas, Monmouth's DREAM never aimed at anything but the status quo, and they found it.