It’s appropriate that American Players Theatre’s current production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” begins, in celebratory fashion, with most of the cast whooping and bopping onto the stage for a drum-fueled dance and audience clap-along. Everyone’s celebrating the debut of the company’s new multi-million-dollar, renovated Hill Theatre, after all, and this is a great way to make ticket holders feel like they’re at the party.
And besides, the raucous virtual group hug is a hell of a lot more personable and welcoming than watching gruff ‘n’ buff Theseus (Jonathon Smoots) try to smooth over Hippolyta (Laura Rook), his resentful bridal conquest. (Although that’s entertaining, too.)
APT’s engaging in some back-to-the-future magic by mounting “Dream”—the very first play to grace the original Spring Green stage. Even without that historic tie, this an impressive and funny production.
We’re here, like we always are when this play is staged, for the fairies, and they do not disappoint. I wasn’t sure anyone could top the metal-meets-wood vibe Theater LILA and CTM came up with when they collaborated on a production of this play last year. But Murell Horton’s fairy costumes are a triumph of imagination, a colorful explosion that bridges the gap between the natural and the magical world. There’s the quartet of tendrils jutting from Titania’s (Collen Madden) head; the guy with the bug eyes who looks like a colorful insect; and the cloven hooves that cap off Oberon’s (Gavin Lawrence’s) costume.
And then there’s Cristina Panfilio’s Puck—the electrified spoon that stirs this play’s colorful drink. She supercharges every scene, cackling, crowing and breaking her iambic pentameter into the rhythm of rap.
The play’s quartet of lovers feature a pair of core company vets (Nate Burger as Demetrius and Melisa Pereyra as Hermia) and a pair of newcomers (Juan River Lebron as Lysander and Melissa Reese as Helena). They all take good advantage of their comic beats.
And those beats just keep coming. This is the first production of “Dream” I’ve seen where the forest takes an actual physical toll on the four lovers. They enter its environs clad as nobles and exit it after spending the evening as Puck’s playthings with their tunics and dresses shredded and tattered, their hair mussed and their faces and bodies smudged with dirt. It’s kind of a wonder that Theseus, Hippolyta and Philostrate (Danny Martinez) don’t have them arrested as some kind of wild Bacchanal recruits.
Director John Langs clearly coached his cast on advancing their characters when the spotlight isn’t on them. Watch for the irritation and outrage coming off Rook’s Hippolyta as she watches Theseus siding against Hermia in the Lysander-Demetrius debate. (She even bats his hand away, Melania Trump style, at a couple of points.) There’s the in-yo’-face happy dance Burger does when Theseus’s arguments strengthen his case.
Later, Madden’s frumpish Titania furrows her brow at her unruly band of fairies for intruding on quality donkey time with the transformed Nick Bottom (John Pribyl). These seem like little things, but they’re evidence of a real attention to character detail that infuses the whole show, making it feel like a fresh take on the Bard’s most familiar story.
Given that Nayna Ramey’s modernistic set is centered on an enormous, luminous moon that looms over the left half of the stage, you’ll want to make sure you catch one of the production’s full evening performances to experience the full effect of the lunar magic. At last weekend’s early evening show, there was still plenty of light in the sky as Puck exhorted the audience to take hands, dampening the effect somewhat.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” plays in the Hill Theatre stage through October 8.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning Madison-area theater coverage for madisonmagazine.com.