Reviewed by Sarah Lockwood
What’s more fitting than a summertime Shakespeare festival in the outdoor amphitheater of an Elizabethan home? The same Shakespeare festival featuring A Midsummer Night’s Dream, of course.
Agecroft Hall is the perfect setting for Richmond Shakespeare’s performance of one of ol’ Bill’s most beloved plays. If you’ve never been, the home is a thing to behold in itself. Built five hundred years ago in England, a wealthy opportunist had the home disassembled, crated, shipped across the Atlantic, and reassembled in its home today in Windsor Farms along the banks of the James River. The Tudor architecture is a perfect backdrop to the small outdoor stadium-style theatre where Richmond Shakespeare actors greet you – in character – before the play even starts.
After these jolly bar patrons assist audience members to their seats (they will not share a sip from their beer steins – I tried), they deliver an impressive and silly pub song to welcome audience members, remind them to turn off cell phones and even explain the weather policy. The jovial atmosphere is set.
You’re probably familiar with the plot (just dust off the mental cobwebs from ninth grade lit). Several story lines connect through the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Hermia’s father (er, mother in this version), Egeus, wants Hermia to marry Demetrius, but she is in love with Lysander. Egeus asks Theseus to step in, invoking an ancient Athenian law requiring a daughter to marry her suitor or face death. While Theseus reduces the alternative sentence to nunhood, Hermia runs away with Lysander. Helena tells Demetrius of their plain, because she loves him and hopes he’ll be mad enough to abandon Hermia for her. Meanwhile, Peter Quince and a band of mechanical workers are rehearsing a play to perform for Theseus’s wedding. They decide to rehearse in the same woods to which the four lovers have run. Oberon, king of the fairies, decides to play some tricks on everyone, including his queen Titania. It’s your basic Real Desperate Housewives of Athens kind of deal. The fun starts when Puck, Oberon’s jester, places love spells on all the wrong couples. Drama ensues. Eventually, the four lovers are released from their love spells and pair off for a triple wedding celebration with Theseus and his betrothed. Oh, and the fairy queen wakes up from her night spent with a Bottom – Peter Quince’s most dramatic, and most amateur actor whose head Puck had changed into a donkey’s. Confused yet? It makes more sense on stage.
The point is, this play is fun. It’s one of Shakespeare’s lightest plays, a comedy of fairies and lovers in the woods who, as Richmond Shakespeare’s dramaturg Anthony Russel so aptly put it, essentially act “out a sylvan version of the ‘Big Brother’ reality show.” There’s a wonderful contrast of civilized Athens, full of rules and marriages, with the dreamy woods where desire and chaos prevail.
Scenic designer Richard Moxley’s branchy sort of tree house centerpiece is the anchor of the whole show. I marveled at its graceful – and yet sturdy – design. It was so fun to watch the actors swing around it and perch from its eaves. The tree was the prefect nest for glittering, cooing fairies. Between the beautiful synchronicity of the four talented actors who played the fairies and the costumes, designed by Virginia McConnell, and movements, choreographed by Kaye Weinstein Gary, these sprites were truly enchanting.
Director Jan Powell brought the magic to life, taking an interesting twist: a 1905 setting with where Hippolyta is no longer queen of the Amazons, but a wealthy Spanish widow from Cuba, and Theseus is loosely modeled after Teddy Roosevelt.
While my Midsummer’s knowledge is embarrassingly lacking, I’ve seen quite a bit of other Shakespeare performances and I have to say that this was the liveliest I’ve ever heard Shakespeare’s lines. The talented cast injected so much personality that I’d recommend it even for youngsters who may not fully understand the play.
First of all, a gold star goes to seven-year-old Paxton Martinez, who played Titania’s adopted Indian boy, for staying up late enough for several scenes of smiling and giggling in adorable costume.
Plus, who wouldn’t love the sudden goofy grins of Dixon Cashwell as Demetrius, David White as Bottom and Charlie Raintree as Lysander when they become enchanted by love potions. Of course, Davis White gets extra kudos for incorporating donkey brays into his enchanted dopiness.
The entire band of “amateur actors” – the same motley crew who greet audience members upon entrance – were sensationally un-amateur in their bumbling and fumbling. From these clowns, to Audra Honaker’s enraged tantrum as Hermia, to John Moon’s sly grin as Oberon, you will laugh the whole show!
Take a picnic to the beautiful grounds and make an evening of this enchanting experience. Between the remarkable Agecroft hall, the lightning bugs in the distance, the shaded seats beneath the trees and the talented actors who continue to coo and fight and dance far off the stage onto the grounds, you may actually believe Puck’s final suggestion that the whole experience is but a dream.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs June 12 through July 6, 2014 at Agecroft Hall | Thursday through Sunday evenings at 8:00 p.m. Presented by Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare. To purchase tickets, go to Shakespeare Festival.