I never get tired of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.”
I’ve seen it performed by more than a dozen different casts and companies on stage, watched the 1935, 1968 and 1999 movie versions and have even been in it twice.
But with all that, it’s easy to forget how much there is to get wrong.
“Midsummer” is one of the only two plays Shakespeare wrote without direct inspiration, as all of his other big-name hits have plots and characters lifted from earlier works. From the tone to the characters to the pacing to humor, “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” can be pure alchemy. If you let it, anyway.
The story perfectly weaves three plots with a four-sided love triangle — a sort of love rhombus — and a group of ‘rude mechanicals,’ tradesmen putting on a comically bad play, who leave their homes in Athens to rehearse in the woods beyond the city that are inhabited by vindictive, spellbinding creatures. The mortals get caught in the magical crossfire and, as they say, hilarity ensues.
Or does it? If there’s a major problem with the Duke City Repertory Theatre’s production, it’s their missing jokes. The actors seem barely able to understand what they’re saying. Shakespeare can be difficult to follow if you’re unfamiliar with the style, but it’s nearly impossible if the meanings of the words are lost in bland deliveries and blank faces.
The show’s pacing is slow, with liberal dramatic pauses dotting everything in sight. The cast lacks animation in ways that make little sense, the humor is glazed over and bizarre emotional choices are constant. Time and time again, opportunities for humor are completely wasted; the choice to take so many moments and play them serious and straight is utterly baffling.
Then, there is a sudden moment in which a character unexpectedly begins to suck on the finger of another.
It is absolutely wonderful. But that creativity and levity is missing from virtually the entire rest of the play. It is a shame.
The set is empty and uninspired, despite the use of some fascinating shifting panels, with ladders to nowhere allowing actors to lean and climb about them in uninteresting and predictable ways. Single phrases are repeated ad nauseam by the cast like a squabbling mass of seagulls in a grating attempt to manufacture humor, though so much of the existing humor is ignored. Banal music assails the action occasionally, pointlessly attempting to punctuate weak dramatic deliveries.
The cast is small, with each actor playing around three separate roles. Each character is denoted by a small change in costume, but the visual differences are far too subtle and performances lack distinction.
Amelia Ampuero plays Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, as some sort of sniffling, feral primitive, which is more distracting than anything else. Her performances as Titania and Peter Quince are simply flat and colorless.
Similarly, Frank Taylor Green’s roles as Theseus and Oberon blend blandly together, each one lacking any regal weight. Oberon is only distinguished by the fact that he hops more.
Lauren Myers as Hermia, Robin Starling and Cobweb plays her roles as a stiff robot, stabbing at the air with pointy, gesticulating hands.
Josh Heard as Demetrius, Tom Snout and Mustardseed appear to come from a style of non-acting, countering the axiom that “acting is reacting” with ‘acting is never, ever reacting to anything ever.’
Ezra Colón is a passable Nick Bottom, the core comedic role of the play, but like much of the cast, lacks the gumption and bravado the role begs for. His performance as Lysander falls in line with the rest by being tame and tedious.
Evening Star Barron’s performances are an unmitigated mess. Her role as Puck is neither silly nor devilish, mostly appearing to be angry for little to no reason. At the play’s second comedic climax, she invades the humor of the scene by screaming in a series of jarring irate distractions as she paces pointedly about.
Kate Becker Colón is a breath of fresh air, as she seems to be the sole member of the cast who knows the meaning of what she’s saying. She’s damn funny, too. Her handle on the wit of the language is exceptional, and her physical size towers over lithe Josh Heard in her scenes of impassioned pursuit of him make you wonder if she might just crush and devour him instead.
But perhaps strangest and most jarring of all, the intermission is in the completely wrong place. The end of the first half leading into the second is supposed to have tension and uncertainly — something akin to a cliffhanger. But here, the intermission occurs after the major resolution of magical lovers’ quarrel. Placing the intermission here is simply wrong.
During the break, one of the smokers outside asked me if the play was over or if there was more. I assured him there was. He did not seem happy about it. It was hard to blame him.
Duke City Repertory Theatre presents:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, Adapted and Directed by John Hardy
Cell Theatre 700 First Street NW.
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
Runs through March 16
For more information call 797-7081 or visit dukecityrep.com