Hippolyta, erstwhile Queen of the Amazons, is a metallurgist who is probably more skilled than any of the “Rude Mechanicals” (Bottom, Quince, Flute et al) who will later perform at her wedding. We know the lady can work with her hands because she has already hung up one mask on a tack and is hammering away at another when her betrothed, Duke Theseus of Athens, enters what appears to be her workshop. He speaks some rather famous lines, thereby splintering the proverbial champagne bottle against the hull of the journey that is Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
And with the Bristol Old Vic company joining the “War Horse” team at the controls of a classically unkillable story, what a splendidly weird, phantasmical and magnificent voyage this turns out to be.
Those masks are a harbinger of things – and fairies - to come. These creations of the Handspring Puppet Company go a long way toward out-wowing what they pulled off with their much ballyhooed “War Horse” (better source material will do that). Between director Tom Morris’s cockeyed sensibility, a dexterous cast that can find endless highly creative uses of wooden planks and a punkish design palette, the Old Vic/Handspring “Dream” is the kind of can’t miss drama that should have programmers at the Broad Stage booking a return visit post-haste. Serious kudos go out to Broad Stage Director Dale Franzen and supporters of Shakespeare at the Broad for bringing in internationally interesting Bard offerings on an annual basis.
Oh, you may have seen “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” before, but you have never, ever seen it with this kind of sensibility. The tale of a quartet of lovers, warring fairy lords and bumbling laborers all mixed up in the same Athenian woods comes across fully intact, completely recognizable with a few creative liberties, but – to borrow and mangle a Puck-y phrase – lord, how cool these puppets be. The trickster Puck himself is an assemblage of baskets, oil cans and kitchen appliances, arranged, split apart and rearranged into an array of cheeky shapes and voiced by Fionn Gill, Saikat Ahamed and Lucy Tuck (all three of whom also take on other roles). Whenever Puck has to move, he essentially explodes (pow!) and then reassembles.
Fairy King Oberon (David Ricardo-Pearce, doubling as Theseus) is represented by a mask and an enormous disembodied forearm which can grab and point. Titania (Saskia Portway) is another free-floating mask surrounded by a sea of the aforementioned planks manipulated by members of the cast. The planks also make for good barriers, trees, you name it.
Morris handles the ass-knolling enchantment of Nick Bottom (Miltos Yerolemou), by Puck with as creative and astonishing a bit of theatricality as this critic – who has probably seen 14 “Dreams” – has ever previously encountered. I will not attempt to describe it except to note that Yerolemou (who sounds a bit like Paul Frees’ Boris Badenov from the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons) is one brave and nimble individual. The transformation and subsequent dallying with Portway’s Titania also seems to loosen the floodgates on a general spirit of bawdiness that prevails through the remainder of the production. How the four lovers – Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius manage to keep their clothes on is anybody’s guess.
Each of the cast members, 12 in total, are on stage pretty much for the duration, and they’re continuously finding new ways to goose, tweak or otherwise delight us. Ahmed’s barely English speaking Snug the Joiner (enlisted to play the Lion in “Pyramus and Thusbe”) is an eager bundle of innocence and delight. Akiya Henry’s scorned Hermia has one honey of a hissy fit when she believes that a charmed Lysander (Alex Felton) has forsaken her for Helena (Naomi Cranston).Colin Michael Carmichael, sporting a crazy set of whiskers, seems to be working out all manner of psychological angst as the Rustics’ director Peter Quince; he and Christopher Keegan get to operate a couple of rather cool fairy puppets. As, of course, do Ricardo-Pearce and Portway when Oberon and Titania get a full rendering at play’s end.
The performers, the creatures, that magnificent and slightly malevolent take on what proves to be not such a gentle comedy after all…that is, apparently what you produce when you dare to dream with the Bristol Old Vic and the Handspring puppeteers.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” continues at 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun.; through April 19 at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $53-$110, (310) 434-3200, www.thebroadstage.com.