What better time than midsummer (well, technically, early summer) to watch Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”? Then add the verite of watching it outside, with a gentle evening breeze stirring away the last remnants of a robustly warm Fresno day, and the experience can be magical.
It helps to have a competent version of the classic play complete the scene, and that’s what you get with the Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s latest incarnation. (It plays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through July 6, with no performance July 4.) Director Aaron Spjute delivers a thoughtful, often funny production that delineates one of the play’s themes particularly well: the wild, uncivilized forest tempting our baser urges vs. the cooler, more cerebral structure of the city appealing to our higher instincts.
Exquisitely personifying that wilder side are the show’s fairy king and queen, the towering Benjamin Baxter as Oberon and a libidinous Brooke Aiello as Titania. As the character responsible for merrily messing up the lives of the hapless mortal lovers who enter his forest, Oberon is a doer, not a talker, and Baxter’s imposing stage presence certainly pumps up that perception. According to his program bio, Baxter hasn’t acted since the eighth grade, but he’s a natural. His booming voice and hearty bearing are impressive.
Aiello, well known to Fresno-area audiences for tearing into muscular roles with relish, conjures her delights here with the kind of big, full-throated performance that works so well in an expansive outdoor setting. Wearing a three-toned green gown and a wild look in her eye, she’s looks like some statuesque sea goddess overwhelming her domain. When she stretches out for an extended nap on stage, her langorous pose is eye-catching even when she’s perfectly still.
This production’s contingent of mixed-up lovers could use even more of Aiello’s raw, earthy excess. The one who comes closest is Aaron McGee’s Lysander, who enters the forest madly in love with Hermia (Suzanne Grazyna). At times playing it up for laughs with preening vanity (at one point he whips out a compact mirror to check out his own face) and at others butching it up in his scenes with his rival Demetrius (Evan Wade), McGee’s bluster is often quite amusing. Erin Baird does have some fun moments as the confused Helena, who suddenly finds herself pursued by the two men. Still, the quartet’s direction seems a little stilted, particularly in the more slapstick-style scenes between Lysander and Demetrius. The fake bravado wears thin.
The love lives of the couples get all mixed up, of course, when Oberon’s minion, Puck (Mohammad Shehata), puts the play’s famed “love potion” on the eyelids of Lysander instead of Demetrius. The machinations get complicated, which is part of the fun, and the effect is to give the poor Hermia the short end of the stick. (What a drag it is to be in the forest and not be either madly in love or pursued by someone.) Grazyna skillfully elicits sympathy from the audience — and in doing so made me think that, at least in this production, the three other lover characters aren’t fleshed out enough to really care about. All you can hope for is exemplary comic timing.
Shehata, as Puck, is a standout. I suspect there will be some who find his interpretation of the role too intellectual and calculating, and I would say there is an element of Shehata being on the outside as an actor looking in, rather than truly inhabiting the character, in some key baser moments. But the choices Shehata makes are striking. There’s a menace to his Puck, a sort of dark and gurgling undercurrent to the character, that is quite effective. (In this interpretation, Puck comes across as oppressed worker much more than I’ve thought of when seeing previous productions. Woe be to Oberon if the forest ever gets unionized.) There’s a lot of fun interplay between Shehata and the audience as well, for those of you sitting in the aisle seats — a nice touch.
Finally, in the third plot thread of this complicated narrative, Guinevere J. Thelin is a spiffy and amusing Peter Quince, the hapless director of the rudimentary acting company that plans to perform at the upcoming wedding of Theseus of Athens (Russell Noland) and the Amazon queen, Hippolyta (Farrah Johnson). Thelin looks the role with her goggles and big red scarf — Celeste Johnson’s costume design for the “rude mechanicals” acting troupe is especially nice — and consistently punches up her scenes with a dweebish verve. Richard Adamson (pictured), too, goofs it up nicely as the hapless Bottom.
Another key contribution to this show: Julie Ann Keller’s sound design, which adds the coos and noises of the forest. You’re ever so more inclined to lean forward and think you, too, could slip into the “dream” onstage. Sitting there at Woodward Park, experiencing all this in the great outdoors, it makes for a pleasant summer evening, indeed.