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Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” [Review]

Chris Evangelista of Geekadelphia

“The course of true love never did run smooth” but The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s staging of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream flows fluidly in a charming production. Artistic Director Carmen Khan has tinged Shakespeare’s comedy with a distinct Bollywood flavor while making great use of a small space.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream chronicles the interconnected plots of three groups of characters. During the celebration of the wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Amazon queen Hippolyta, four young lovers—Lysander and Hermia, Helena and Demetrius—escape into an enchanted forest. There they themselves amidst the squabbles of fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania, and, due to the whims of Oberon’s mischievous servant Puck, are caught up in the fairies’ slapstick-infused trickery a confusion of identities. Meanwhile, a band of amateur craftsmen-turned-actors are trying to stage a play despite being woefully out of their depth.

The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s production employs clever lighting and aerial silk elevation to keep things in a state of perpetual motion. Indeed, there are no lulls in Dream as the skilled actors frantically juggle the deliberately chaotic plot while vaulting across the stage with controlled grace. Khan’s staging plays up the comedic aspects of Shakespeare’s play, and the cast members embrace the humourous physicality of their roles and their interactions with one another.

From a performance standpoint, there’s not a weak link in the chain. The actors playing the four young lovers have the most demanding roles, and they excel at every turn. Josh Kachnycz as Lysander and Arlen Hancock as Demetrius have apt comedic timing and exceedingly impressive physical comedy chops. Jenna Kuerzi, as Hermia, brings a contemporary approach to strongly deliver Shakespeare’s prose, while Jessica Giannone is remarkable as an increasingly flustered Helena. Brian Anthony Wilson and Eleni Delopoulous, pulling double-duty playing both Oberon/Thesus and Titania/Hoppolyta, respectively, both display airs of gravitas in their roles, while John Zak as the clownish actor Nick Bottom–who finds himself at one point turned into a four-legged ass–finds an appropriately balance between his character’s goofy behavior and earnestness.

Melissa Dunphy makes the most striking impression as Puck, as she wildly careens across the production in a state of frenzy, lithely scaling the floor-to-catwalk ribbons that flank the stage. At the show’s start, she slinks out from the darkness, playing a haunting melody on a violin, and gradually hooks in the audience. Similarly, Dunphy delivers Puck’s closing soliloquy in song. Although this song seems slightly out of place in the context of the production, the choreography of the final scene does allow Puck to once again connect intimately with the audience before tying up the story with the full ensemble. Tellingly, she appears here still in the guise of Puck’s Athenian double, Philostrate, demonstrating the unreliability of any identity or story in the play, even for its wily narrator–and perhaps underscoring the importance of storytelling above true reality.

My biggest takeaway, upon seeing this production’s delightful conclusion, was how much fun it all is. An infectious spirit of enjoyment fills this show, inspiring a goofy grin as the cast celebrates the end in a storm of confetti. 2015 is the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and as such Shakespeare events aplenty are currently running rampant in Philadelphia. This staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one not to miss, creating and leaving in its wake a celebratory feeling perfectly apt for the Bard’s birthday.

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