At 8:00 PM on the dot, Puck — that merry wanderer of the night — ambled up the aisle of the historic Folger Library Theatre. Played by Erin Weaver (Puck is one of many gender-swapped characters in Aaron Posner’s reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Puck idly pets a few aisle-seated theater-goers on her way to the stage before jumping into an introductory soliloquy meant to warn against stray phone buzzes and chirps. After that initial reminder, we are transported into the superb first act of a modern Dream starring a ukulele-strumming, fedora-sporting Lysander, onstage magic tricks, and even a snippet of Adele’s “Someone Like You” sung by a rejected lover.
For those who somehow escaped high school without having read Dream (or for those who dimly remember something about an ass head…), the play revolves around the mixed-up love rectangle of the beautiful Hermia (Betsy Mugavero), the doting Lysander (Adam Wesley Brown), the frustrated Demetrius (Desmond Brown) and the spurned Helena (Kim Wong), who end up happily ever after thanks to the meddlesome adventures of Puck and the fairy King Oberon (played gleefully by Eric Hissom). The four Athenians shared the best of their scenes; it was a treat to watch Shakespeare’s intricate battle of words spoken by actors unafraid to have fun with the legendary canon (note: Mugavero’s Hermia really dislikes being called little). Yet no matter how expressive Demetrius’ protestations or charismatic Lysander’s words of love, Puck and Oberon often stole the show from the bickering couples with their playful chemistry and on-the-side antics. In one hilarious scene, Puck steals some apples from Hermia’s backpack and the two munch, legs swinging off a treehouse like little kids, contentedly watching the mortals act like fools.
In the typical Shakespearean mode, there is a play within the play. In this case, it’s The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, staged by Peter Quince and his band of players. Holly Twyford plays Bottom (Nicki instead of Nick in this production), as an eccentric, over-the-top drama teacher who is beloved by the uniformed school girls who look to please her. Twyford earned the most laughs of the night as an ass-headed Bottom stumbling around the forest and inciting panic (she even hee-haws out a few lyrics of “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods). Posner’s choice to make the players all women, save for Peter Quince, was a risk that generally paid off seamlessly thanks to the new rapports born from the genderswap. In one running joke, Starveling (Justina Adorno) and Snout (Monique Robinson) share a special high-school-BFF high-five after anything awesome happens.
Posner’s energetic directing had the actors exploiting every nook and cranny of the theater; Oberon performed exuberant gymnastics on an onstage balcony and Hermia, enraged by Lysander’s apparent infatuation with Helena, chased her nemesis through the audience, literally tripping over a woman (Mugavero, still in character, shouted “Sorry!”). Four body-sized pillows were arranged purposefully, serving to cushion the actors’ falls as they threw themselves against the wall or were induced into a sudden sleep by the fairies. That the actors never missed their marks is a testament to Posner’s lively yet efficient blocking. Puck’s conversation with a fairy (a small ball of light held in Weaver’s hand) combined kinetic acting — the fairy seemed to pitch Puck every which way — with subtle sleight of hand tricks (at one point, the fairy disappeared into Puck’s mouth only to pop back out again). The physical comedy heightened the dynamic relationships between characters and gave ample stage-time to Weaver’s impressive abs, arguably the real star of the show.
Posner’s second act featured the slower parts of the play, including the weddings and the production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Here is where Posner’s interpretation lost me. The play-within-a-play was punctuated by odd musical breaks that were amusing in the beginning but devolved into tedium. I’m sure Posner utilized this technique in an attempt to illustrate the general awful nature of the players’ work, but it just ended up prolonging the play’s weakest plot line. To add insult to injury, the entire cast burst into a kitschy song during the last few minutes, coming onstage to perform a choreographed dance. What appeared to be a stab at modernity ended up as a strange, disappointing end to an otherwise highly entertaining show.
Even after that strikingly discordant choice, is it worth the ticket? Absolutely. The charm, wit, and creativity of the play’s first chunk far outweigh the cheesy showtune vibe of the last few minutes. Still, I found myself wondering if that bizarre mirage of song and dance after a nearly perfect show was merely the result of an inopportune slumber, as Puck suggests.
Directed by Aaron Posner, starring Holly Twyford and Erin Weaver The Folger Theater’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through March 13, 2016 Tickets range from $35-$75