Just before her wedding, an Eisenhower-era bride-to-be has issues with her all-in-control intended in this take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The role of women in the pre-feminist, post-Freudian “Mad Men” period is clear at the start of Lisa Peterson’s intriguing but uneven production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy of love, power and dreams. And explorations of gender equality make a fine and valid subtext for the Bard’s fanciful battle of the sexes. But casting and some misguided theatrical flourishes take away much of helmer’s thematic punch.
Hippolyta (Johanna Day) dreams away her pre-marital anxieties about fiance Theseus (David Andrew Macdonald) and a more submissive life ahead. In her subconscious world she literally follows the journey of four young lovers as they flee to follow their hearts in the Neverland of a fairy-filled forest.
In this unsettling woodland world (rendered with flair by designer Rachel Hauck and lit as if with moonglow by Stephen Strawbridge), it’s the lost boys against the girls, led by Titania (Day) and her warring ex, Oberon (Macdonald). (Place your bets on the nimble and ferocious gals though, especially Chelsea Farthing as Musterseed.)
To make the distaff voyage of the imagination soar, casting is critical, but a key dual-role misses the mark. Day, in the pivotal-but-slight role of Hippolyta and as the empowering Titania, does best when she’s reacting to the twin worlds around her. Her expressive face is alive with angst, curiosity and humor. But when it comes to commanding the Bard’s poetic text and grounding the thematic conceit, her perf lacks lyrical magic.
It’s Macdonald who best centers the production as a beguiling, thoughtful and quirky Oberon, learning in the end to be a better immortal man — and by extension, Theseus evolves too — at least in Hippolyta’s dream.
Young lovers — especially the women — also discover things in the forest. Susannah Flood is a find as the exasperated Helena who is first scorned twice, then doubly wooed and always thoroughly rattled. She is wildly comic, true and touching as the perennial gawky best friend to everyone’s favorite, Hermia (Christina Pumariega). There’s a lovely moment when Hermia and Helena wistfully sing the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” in sweet sisterhood. Sanjit De Silva’s Lysander also has a winning cockiness as Hermia’s beleaguered beau.
Everett Quinton brings his deliciously broad sense of play to theater-loving Peter Quince (though as Hermia’s father Egeus, his rage is merely ridiculous). Lucas Caleb Rooney’s Bottom is a great unknowing clown, almost getting away with the anachronistic, asinine silliness.
Liberties of text and staging are taken to fit the period and the production’s themes. Contemporary professions of plumber (played by a woman), delivery man and florist have replaced tinker, bellows mender, joiner and weaver among the tradesmen of the incredibly amateur acting troupe that finds itself swept up in the magical forest.
And in this version, Hippolyta is more of a presence, not only in the play’s beginning but in sharing a hosting role with Theseus at the production’s end. It makes a splendid coda to an evening that dreams of better days.