Those of us who miss the theater and find ourselves longing for passionate, enthusiastic performances should take the drive to DeSales University and spend a midsummer night in Center Valley watching William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The two-hour performance is making its outdoor debut this month at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival on the new Air Products Open Air Theatre. The production, directed by Barrymore Award-winning director Matt Pfeiffer, is the Festival’s first, fully-staged outdoor show. The new venue was built to give theatergoers an outdoor option to enjoy the performances in a COVID-19 world.
And it worked. As part of an outdoor audience, I felt safe as I giggled, gasped, and clapped at the mishaps of Midsummer’s star-crossed lovers as they unwittingly fell for the pranks of fairies behaving badly. Just as I’m sure Shakespeare would have wanted.
Pfeiffer’s Midsummer was true to Shakespeare’s searingly funny 16th-century dialogue that, by the way, all of the actors delivered with precision, authority, and — most importantly, heart. Pfeiffer added a few modern-day touches and original compositions that gave this production an any-century feel. In this way, Midsummer stayed true to the intention to the original Shakespeare in the Park performances that started in New York during the 1950s and were designed to bring the bard’s time-honored work to contemporary audiences.
In the first act, Egeus, played by the dynamic Bi Jean Ngo — who Shakespeare originally meant to be a man — charges into King Theseus’ (Lindsay Smiling) court demanding the king stop her daughter Hermia (Kathryn Tkel) from marrying Lysander (Luigi Sottile). Lysander looks a lot like Matthew McConaughey in this play. So, we really can’t blame the sister for being smitten.
Egeus would rather her daughter marry the boisterous — and dare I say disdainful — Demetrius (Akeem Davis). But Hermia’s best friend, Helena (Brett Ashley Robinson), is in love with Demetrius, who will have no part of her. When Helena whines her rendition of Minnie Riperton’s 1975 hit “Loving You,” there is no question Helena is in full-on stalker mode. Her infatuation borders on disturbing and the actress deftly ramps up her instability throughout the remainder of the play.
Shakespeare’s magical forest and the fairies who inhabit it are supposed to be metaphors for the mixed messages lovers give and receive that can impact their relations. Clearly, this is before text messages were introduced to the mix. Nonetheless, Mary Tuomanen, known by Philadelphia theatergoers for her work at the Arden and Wilma — nails the unapologetic rascal Puck as they take delight in playing with the lovers’ emotions.
Ian Merrill Peakes is a belly full of laughs as the weaver Nick Bottom, the over-the-top actor in Midsummer’s play within a play, who Puck mischievously turns into a donkey. Peakes’ Bottom gives us know-it-all redneck vibes. And that’s just funny.
There is no intermission, and because of the keen performances of the actors, it’s not missed. The scenes Pfeiffer deleted or combined don’t confuse the story line either. The characters who play dual roles — Smiling is both Theseus and the fairy King Oberon; Ngo, Egeus and the play within a play director, Peter Quince; and Eleanor Handley, Theseus’ fiancée, Hippolyta, and the fairy queen, Titania — master their performances. The audience is easily able to follow who’s who. And in a play whose main idea revolves around confusion, that’s very much appreciated.
More information on the festival: Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival Summer 2021 Season
DeSales University, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, Pa. \
Air Products Open Air Theatre: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” through Aug. 1. Tickets: $52-$62.
Festival Main Stage (indoors): “An Iliad,” through Aug. 1. Tickets: $52-$62.