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Big Easy beat enhances Shakespeare & Co's 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

Rocco Sisto, David Joseph, Kelly Galvin, and Michael F. Toomey in a scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Rocco Sisto, David Joseph, Kelly Galvin, and Michael F. Toomey in a scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Kevin Sprague

“Les bon temps” do indeed “roullez” aplenty in Tony Simotes clever restaging of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Lenox’s Shakespeare & Company, where the play is set in of all places the New Orleans of the 1920’s and 30’s, where the magic forest drips with cypress and the streets are filled with the sounds of Cajun-infused jazz.

Michael F. Toomey (center) leads ;the revelers in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Kevin Sprague

This is an inspired choice, as it allows for a plethora of colorful costumes, snippets of zydeco mixed within the jazz and the rare opportunity to hear Shakespeare’s language spoken with an assortment of Louisiana accents, from the haughty broad tones of Southern aristocracy to the fascinating tempos and stylings of classic French Creole. (Admittedly not all of the accents are consistent throughout, but when they are appropriately applied by actors such as Jonathan Epstein, Johnny Lee Davenport and Annette Miller who plays Egeus as an exasperating precursor of a Real Housewife of New Orleans) they convey a winning amount of local color and atmosphere.)

Simotes’ Big Easy references are evocative enough to set the environment, but not overdone to detract from the essence of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Most noticeable are the accents along with Deborah A. Brothers’ fine array of period costumes, which for some of the women convey a flapper spirit that even extends to some of the fairies, or for the men a 30’s formal style reminiscent of a Southern take on Gatsby style. The fairy royals, Oberon, Titania and Puck, are dressed in broader styles, with Michael F. Toomey’s slightly overweight, low-key, laid-back Puck dressed clumsily and topped with an aviator’s cap, while his two fantastical fairy masters appear in more timeless and refined ethereal garb.

Travis George’s set, in addition to hanging branches of cypress that will serve as secret hiding places later in the show, creates a nicely festive backdrop of multi-colored string of Mardi Gras beads, with an ample of suitable props to keep us anchored in the delta city. In addition, a festive gathering of the entire cast in the theater’s lobby toward the end of the intermission culminates in a jumbalaya-flavored chorus designed to parade the evening’s patrons back into theater in the style of one of the Big Easy’s famed celebratory funeral processions.

My only genuine disappointment with this concept—and it is in all honesty a minor one--is that Simotes, who is Shakespeare & Company’s Artistic Director, could have done a bit more to carry it all the way through to the end. Although the music selected and the original songs composed by Music Director Alexander Sovronksy is genuinely festive and wholly appropriate, one finds it remarkably missing from the second act. In addition, the comedy of the four young Athenian lovers fleeing through the woods leaves out any references to the Big Easy except for two pieces of hanging Cypress branches. (but more than makes up for that in the terms of some wildly delightful physical comedy that is simultaneously hilarious and jaw-dropping), and even the local gang of workmen, called “the rude mechanicals,” who are preparing a pageant to perform at the impending nuptials of the local Duke Theseus and his captured, defeated bride, Hippolyta, do not infuse their little play with a strong NOLA sense. For all intents and purposes, the audience could be back in Athens, which of course is what this Cajun community is called throughout the play.

But the overall spirit is one of merriment and comedy and that is maintained by Simotes and his company from beginning to end. The deep dark woods of the Mississippi delta region have long been filled with mystery and dread, especially with the arrival of voodoo culture with many of the Haitian and African emigrees. A sense of dread can be imagined settling over the cypress and wisteria inspired woods, particularly due to Puck’s mind-changing machinations, and as the fairies attempt to prove what fools these mortals be, they even attempt to provide a brief scare by jumping out as a pair of chanting voodoo demons. And with “black magic” having been a historical reality in New Orleans, where else would Oberon and Puck’s mysterious potions made from the seeds of unique plants make more sense?

Simotes has cast the impending newlyweds and battling fairy dignitaries with the same actors, Rocco Sisto as Theseus/Oberon and Merrit Janson as Hippolyta/Titania. They prove to be archly formal as they negotiate the terms of their marriage, with the Amazon queen willing to succumb, but not under Theseus’s unwillingness turn against the wishes of his artistocracy to please the true love desires of Athens’ young noble class. Oberon and Titania, as unseen, powerful fairies, enjoy a much feistier relationship than their human counterparts. They are more willing to be sarcastically confrontational and play mean games with each other, in this case when Oberon uses a potion to have his sleeping wife fall in the love with the first person she sees on waking, who the playful Puck conveniently turns into a donkey. Sisto proves that he can be quite commanding and unforgiving as Oberon, while Janson demonstrates a delightful playfulness as the deluded queen who becomes enamored of this ass, yet finds it in her heart to negotiate a peach with her fairy king.

As that ass, Nick Bottom, Johnny Lee Davenport absolutely delights with his take on the town’s weaver, who is not quite dumb or as full of himself as audiences may find in other productions. His Bottom is an endearing character, whose desire to play all the parts in the workers’ “play within the play” is motivated more out of wanting to provide an better final product than outshine his fellow players. Davenport plays Bottom as a man whose malapropisms are understood by his colleagues and not seen as any game of superiority, but who nonetheless is regarded as a leader by them. His transformation is handled briefly offstage, but Davenport assures that all the necessary honks, hee-haws and snorts are readily provided. His glee in being matched with Titania is sweet to see, as is his delight in being massaged and cared for by a phlanyx of fairies.

As the four star-crossed and fairy potion cursed young lovers finding themselves in the mysterious and lurking woods, Simotes has assembled four young company members who play quite well off of each other—and in this case, we mean they must literally plat off of each other, as Simotes has their bodies bound, block, tumble, trap, roll, catch, toss and shove each other, as Kelly Galvin’s obsessive Hermia pursues the tall and nimble Demetrius of Colby Lewis who instead only has affection for the attractively brainy Helena (Cloteal L. Horne) who would much rather be with the quietly nobler and stoically handsome Lysander of David Joseph. Simotes and movement director Barbara Allen must deserve much of the credit, along with these four actors, for wildly physical antics of these four, who do a tremendous crowd-pleasing job of juggling each other, both in the air and on the floor, pushing, pulling, dragging each other across the ground, carefully coordinating near misses and crash landings, not missing a best (except for some occasional heavy breathing) of Shakespeare’s delicious prose. Their forest scene, as a bemused and shocked Sisto and Toomey watch from the sidelines reacting to each bump, hit, punch or throw, is one of the highlights of the play, one that goes further with the physicality than nearly any other production of “Dream” I have seen. (And that includes Peter Brook’s legendary 1972 Royal Shakespeare production that felt that it was set on a trampoline –though it wasn’t).

The Rude Mechanicals all create distinguishable characters, most notably Jonathan Epstein’s worry-wart producer Peter Quince (he of the delightfully maintained Creole accent), but as do Alexander Sovronksy’s awkward Flute who proves to be a willing and winning Thisbe in the skit, Robert Lohbauer as Snout who proudly imbues his Wall in the show with enough smarts to help out his fellow actors, and Malcom Ingrahm’s Starveling, a diva in the making willing to carry any number of props to convey his character. In addition Miller returns as Snug the Joiner who is cast as the Lion, who allows her women’s sensitivities to try to assure that her character will not frighten their audience but whose practice roars grow in power as showtime approaches.

Once the play within the play ends and the newly-married royal revelers head to sleep and its time for Puck to ask us for our hands, Simotes reminds us that we’ve been in a New Orleans inspired world, with jazz and zydeco helping to bring the evening to a close. Again, it is somewhat of a sudden shock to be brought back to that world after having spent so much time in such a non-descript woods. Perhaps more of New Orleans culture could have been infused into the show without altering the trajectory. Say, some more us of those elaborate costumes for the Mardi-Gras celebrations that the different “house” create over the year could be incorporated, or even the throwing and tossing of some of those beads. And what about more of those street musicians one finds on every corner or more umbrellas in the festive street parades, or even some bougainvillia to match the Cypress or a few more references to voodoo and other spiritual considerations of this most secret and seductive city. After all, we’ve see Treme and American Horror Story: Coven, to know just how vivid New Orleans can be.

But for those who chafe and worry about Shakespeare, this production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is an easy tonic to take. It’s an easy Sazerac, designed to give pleasure and not disturb. And who knows? You may learn to appreciate Shakespeare even more!

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” plays at Shakespeare & Company through August 30, for a complete schedule and to order tickets, call the Shakespeare & Co box office or visit their website at www.shakespeare.org.

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