A Midsummer Night's Dream
nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
February 1, 2007
For those unfamiliar with A Midsummer Night's Dream, this story of true love not running smooth goes something like this: Young lovers from Athens find themselves imperiled and flee into the nearby woods, wherein a group of blue-collar workers are rehearsing a play they hope will win them favor with the Duke of Athens, while Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, argue with each other and cause a great deal of mischief for everyone. By turns rambunctious and gentle, wild and witty, A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the most produced plays Shakespeare wrote, and with good reason. The play is genuinely funny, with great roles for actors to grab onto, three separate worlds combining and colliding in hilarious ways, and a satisfyingly complicated plot with a happy ending. It's gossamer-light, a delicious soufflé. And Theater By The Blind co-artistic director Ike Schambelan has a rather novel idea at the core of his production: Use only six actors, with each one playing a member of each of the play's discrete groups—Athenians, rude mechanicals, and fairies. Unfortunately, the players are rarely up to the task, and so the central concept is executed with middling success.
By far the most winning of the six cast members is Jon Levenson as hotheaded Demetrius, a deeply nervous Prologue (in the play-within-the-play Pyramus & Thisbe), and the palest Jamaican ever, Peter Quince. (His wincingly lispy Mustardseed is an unfortunate and unfunny way to play a fairy.) Andrew Rein also does well by lover Lysander, Irish day laborer Flute, and an understated Cobweb. The rest of the cast offers mixed results. Nicholas Vaselli's Theseus is strong and clear, but his Puck is completely earthbound. Likewise, Erin O'Leary offers a nice take on Hippolyta, an occasionally solid Helena, and an inexplicably French Snout/Wall. (It seems that after West Indian, Hispanic, and Irish, the rest of the actors simply chose any other accent for the rude mechanicals they could think of.) It is indeed a shame that co-artistic Director George Ashiotis is one of the weakest links on stage, showing neither the ease of language nor the outsized personality required to play Oberon and particularly Bottom. And regarding Ann Marie Morelli, an actress who uses a wheelchair, the best thing to be said is that having a Hermia in a wheelchair offers a genuinely funny take on the character's obsession with being of lesser stature than Helena.
Schambelan also undercuts the savvy notion of triple-casting (quadruple, including the rude mechanicals' performance of Pyramus & Thisbe) with some undeniably awkward staging. Due presumably to the need for actors to change clothes, a disproportionately large amount of text must be delivered to the wings. Additionally, Ashiotis—who is blind—seemed, at the performance reviewed, still not fully familiar with the theater's layout, which led to an uncomfortable moment or two. But Schambelan's worst crime is that he never seems to have told the actors that they're in a comedy. Without command and joie de vivre, the text never reaches beyond the stage to amuse, entertain, and delight the audience. The result is an efficient production that never stops moving, but which also fails to inspire.
Merope Vachiloti offers a simple but attractive set, augmented by Bert Scott's lighting and particularly Brad L. Scoggins's costumes, which provide some extremely impressive quick changes. While this Midsummer Night's Dream does not work as well as one might hope, Theater By The Blind is without question a laudable institution. Hopefully their next production will land on more solid footing.