Punks, goths, hipsters and theatrical eccentrics populate the graffiti-strewn slums of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, mounted at Midway Studios on the Fort Point Channel in the South End.
While it may sound dangerous, this Midsummer is actually light and breezy, highlighting freshly updated caricatures of endlessly mockable archetypes: the slick politician, the status-obsessed father, overblown young lovers, self-aggrandizing actors-in-training. The plays’ fairies are made-over amusingly, as creepy yet lovable street toughs with aging punk rockers as their king and queen.
Also at the fore is the poetry. Founding A.S.P. Director, Benjamin Evett is far more conservative than, his colleague across the river, Diana Paulus, who has just made her mark as the new Artistic Director of the A.R.T. with the abstract, spectacle-heavy adaptations of Shakespeare Exploded. In contrast, Evett offers more or less an entire Shakespeare text (such as it is preserved) and a cast comfortable enough to keep it from sounding like a foreign language.
The comedy begins in the court of Theseus, (Curt Klump), who has just conquered the city of Athens and the formidable personage of Hippolyta (Autumn Elise Henry), queen of the Amazons, his soon-to-be-bride. Klump’s Theseus is more of a charmer than a warrior and with his slight frame, slick black suit and permanent slanted-eyes-smile, you wonder if he won Athens with a corporate merger rather than a spear. Nevertheless he orchestrates the plays’ business fluidly, which begins with the case of Egeus (Dayenne Byron Walters) who seeks government enforcement of the demand that his willful daughter Hermia (played masterfully by Mara Sidmore) is wedded to Demetrius (Christopher James Webb) , the man of his choosing, a conservative with the baring of a Soprano. Hermia wants to marry the more free- spirited Lysander, (Shelley Bolman) who points out that Demetrius already has the affections of an obsessive ex, Hermia’s best friend, Helena (Jennie Israel).
Looking at this ensemble, some odd casting choices remind one of why this is an "Actor’s Shakespeare Project" rather than simply ours. Distractingly, the role of Egeus is filled by a woman who plays him as a man. While her characterization of a stern, power-hungry parent is solid, we are not fooled by her gender and no new light is shed on the character by the crossâ€”not to mention the fact that her dark skin and dreads keep her from resembling her fair-skinned, fair-haired daughter. Moreover, we are given a Helena who is oddly outside the age group of the other lovers. She seems a strange companion at least for Hermia, and beyond the adolescent melodrama at the character’s core.
Nevertheless, the play really comes to life when the lovers cross over into "the woods" where Hermia and Lysander plan to elope, followed by Demetrius who, tipped-off by Helena, seeks to foil their plan, and Helena herself, who hopes to corner and seduce Demetrius.
The woods, in this case, are not the forest but rather the inner city. Just why the realm is constantly referred to in pastoral language is not made clearâ€”Evett may have done well to cut some of the script’s "green plots," "bladed grass" and banks of "wild tyme" (particularly with the show’s nearly three-hour length), but the conceit of using the inner city pays off extremely well. It is indeed our version of "the woods," an unsanitized place removed from civilization, rife with danger, but also with freedom. To create this setting, Evett, has recruited a youth team from Artists for Humanity, and the Graffiti artist PROBLACK, to create some beautiful and haunting set pieces. Midway residents Billy and Bobby McClain, leant hip-hop choreography.
Most effectively, Evett has brought in a team of young actors from the Boston Arts Academy to fill-out the ranks of the urban "woods," whose dwellers include a gang of "rude mechanical" craftsmen who fancy themselves actors and rehears a play to perform at Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, and the gang of fairies who interfere with both the actors and the lovers.
The mechanicals are anchored by A.S.P. resident actors, John Kuntz who plays Peter Quince the carpenter as a fruity artiste out of Waiting For Guffman and Robert Walsh as Nick Bottom the weaver, the egotistical star who, thanks to supernatural entanglements, wears the plays’ iconic ass head and has a romantic run-in with the fairly queen. Both are hammy and hilarious. The young actors filling out the rest of the troupe are equally funny, updating the characters with actor stereotypes they must encounter in class after classâ€”the surly, overqualified, coffee-fetching stage manager (Lenise Farrier as Snout) the effeminate hipster (Trent Mills as Flute) the emo kid (the scene-stealing Karl Baker Olson as Starveling) and the perrenial presence, the stage-fright-stricken newbie (Nelson Martinez as Snug).
Little do they know they are rehearsing on the battlefield of Oberon (Michael Kaye) and Titania (the brilliant and hilarious Marianna Bassham) a punky king and queen of the street who are feuding over a henchman. Sporting a greaser haircut with soul patch and a full-length leather coat with tattoo-like emblazoning, he resembles a young Tom Waits and is tempting to read as a drug lord (although this is never made explicit.) Incongruously, his speech is the most refined of the cast. Far from sounding tough, he revels in the verse. Bassham’s Titania is the best thing going for this production. She is both funny and formidable as an addled, witchy, punk queen, a bit frightening for her flightiness and power. As with the mechanicals, the young actors who comprise their entourage are inspired riffing on the stereotypical bad kids of their generation from gangster to goth girl. Their role model is Oberon’s deputy, the mischievous Puck, who, played by Maurice Emmanuel Parent looks really menacing with bulging muscles and a fierce mohawk, but turns out to be a light-hearted trickster with dancer-like movements and a nimble tongue.
This would be a great first Midsummer for students and newcomers to the play. It’s accessible and engaging and has real charm. It’s a but uneven and at this point, the conflict lacks a bit of urgency bit it offers some memorable performances and a bang-up conclusion that promises laughs and will leave you in a great mood.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through January 24.