The great love affair in the Williamstown production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is not between Oberon and Titania, Hermia and Lysander or even Puck and himself, but rather between this annual festival and the Adams Memorial, the elegant old theater that has been home to summer escapes for 50 years and is ending its half-century run at season’s end, to be replaced by a new facility. If this take sounds a bit bizarre, then you don’t know the idiosyncrasies of the festival where sentimentality is strong, family ties are deep and sense of place is sacred.
Most of the players — wives, husbands, children, friends and lovers — are returning after multiple summers for producer Michael Ritchie’s swan-song season before he heads to Los Angeles to head the Center Theater Group.
But don’t look for this show to travel. From the beginning, this production is a love letter with its envelope clearly stamped “Williamstown.”
Coming into the theater, audience members see an “Entering Williamstown” sign onstage, indicating this romantic rustic romp will have more than a little local color in Alexander Dodge’s ambitious, though not entirely successful, set. When the actors begin the play by bursting through the doors of a flat representing the classically designed facade of the theater, it’s not entirely clear if we’re in Athens-by-way-of-Adams or a backstage Bard story, a la “Kiss Me Kate.”
The show continues along these parallel lines, with the best moments those that are sweet and comic.
Martin has directed a kinder, gentler and simpler “Midsummer,” one that keeps the dark psychosexual ramifications safely in the shadows. Instead, it’s lovingly lit by a milder moon, one that wants no lasting harm to come to any of the play’s lunatics, lovers and poets.
Martin has a special spot in his heart for the lunatics, re-envisioning Shakespeare’s odd mechanicals as a bad community theater company trying to get its shot at the WTF mainstage. In Jeremy Shamos as Bottom and Brooks Ashmanskas as Francis Flute, he has two stellar clowns. (The rest of this crew isn’t bad, either — or more to the point, they’re wonderfully bad — especially Andrea Martin doing a comic gender switch as Robin Starveling, the old tailor of uncertain ethnic origins.) Though there may be human moments missed among the ham, there are still some delightful bits of burlesque.
Many liberties in the spirit of fun are taken in the refashioning of the troupe’s scenes. Bottom sings “I Whistle a Happy Tune” when left alone in the forest; Francis Flute reveals a delicious secret when he whispers to Bottom in a rehearsal, “I am very attracted to you.” (Too bad the possibilities of this relationship weren’t explored further; the play could have ended up with yet another wedding in Massachusetts.)
The most inspired comic perf, however, comes not from among the traditional fools but from a continually inventive Jessica Stone as Hermia, a role often upstaged by the showier Helena. Stone is a delight in her every action, word and look. Even her toes can’t be contained from acting when she is both tempting and resisting her Lysander.
The other lovers — Kathryn Hahn as an exasperated Helena, Jon Patrick Walker as a slightly bad-boy Demetrius and the boyish Dashiell Eaves — do well in completing the quartet, but Stone is in a class by herself.
As for the poets, John Bedford Lloyd’s powerful presence as Oberon and Kate Burton as an oddly bewigged Titania give their roles eloquence and grace, as do David Lansbury and Jennifer Van Dyck as the Duke and his queen.
Christopher Fitzgerald as Puck, however, is charming but rather disconnected and surprisingly tame, lacking the proper summer mischievousness and madness to take the role to a deeper level.
But this is a “Midsummer” that is more autumnal in spirit, one that says goodbye to the chaos of a romantic and fantastical past in favor of a well-ordered and mortal future. As Puck rides this production’s final moon — here a large wrecking ball poised to knock down the theater — the fairies reappear and fill the aisles of the theater, singing and waving their sparkling wands, sprinkling their magic dust one final time and bidding their old friend goodbye. A theater has never received such a wonderful benediction or a more magical farewell.