insightful in-depth reviews

4, Apr 2017
Powell & Hodge, photo by Mark Garvin

Midsummer Night at the Arden

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. Arden Theatre, Philadelphia, March 2017.

This Arden Theatre production is the funniest Midsummer Night’s Dream of recent memory.

Director Matt Pfeiffer stressed the absurdity of the situations — indeed, the irrationality of all infatuations. His cast wore contemporary clothing, pointing out the timelessness of the story, while the set (by Olivera Gajic) was bare bones, recalling the old movies where Mickey and Judy would be in a barn and say, “Hey, let’s put on a play.”

This interpretation did underplay the romantic, and the sense of place, whether that be ancient Athens or the Arden woods near Stratford-upon-Avon. We missed seeing the foundational anchor where Athens represents law and order and the right of fathers to dictate whom their daughters may marry.

Yet the imaginative and energetic performances of the ten-person cast (with double role-playing) swept us along in a headlong celebration. (This is quite the opposite of what Stephen Sondheim portrayed during his midsummer romantic getaway, A Little Night Music.) The blurring of identities was emphasized by the double casting and it affirmed the narcotic dreaminess that is the soul of this play.

Dan Hodge was splendid as the over-dramatic and self-aggrandizing Bottom. Mary Tuomanen was mesmerizing as the mischievous Puck who orchestrates the plot twists.

Taysha Maris Canales, as Hermia, was properly tiny of stature as the determined fighter for the right to marry the man she loves. When she fears that Lysander has left her because she’s short, it demonstrates that body image issues aren’t a recent problem for women.

Rachel Camp, as Helena, was the more lovable of the two competitive girlfriends. Although she was desperate because the man she loved suddenly rejected her, she exuded appealing vulnerability — and a sense of humor.

Shakespeare again (as with the body-image reference) was ahead of his time as he excoriated male dominance — both in the opening scene in Athens, and when Helena chased Demetrius through the woods and likened herself to Apollo who chased Daphne to rape her. Demetrius then threatens Helena with violence, to “do mischief in the wood” if she doesn’t stop following him. But Camp/Helena assertively holds firm.

Titania can be appealing when she is shown as a powerful woman who advocates women’s rights, but Katharine Powell played her, and Queen Hippolyta, as shrews with attitude. Lindsay Smiling, as Theseus and as Oberon, king of the fairies, was properly magisterial. Sean Close, as Lysander, and Brandon J. Pierce, as Demetrius, were entertaining as the competing young men.

We’ll have to visit other productions of Midsummer to see the woods as a gorgeous and lush world. Here we use our mind and imagine it as the workspace for the suspension of man-made rules, where a lowly workman can romance a Queen of the Fairies.

Alex Bechtel’s sound design used live musicians to parallel the story with songs such as “If I Needed You” by Emmylou Harris and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt.