It’s been said that if William Shakespeare had written no other play other than A Midsummer Night’s Dream he still would be one of the most admired and often-performed playwrights in the world. This is a testament to the beauty and sheer entertainment of this play, which has enchanted audiences for roughly 420 years.
In Masterworks Theater Company’s new production, being presented at the 47th Street Theatre, a wonderful cast of smart, engaging and very funny actors transform themselves into Shakespeare’s lovers, fairies and “rude mechanicals”. We meet Shakespeare’s unhappy Hermia (Sheria Irving) and Lysander (Reynaldo Piniella), doomed to be apart because Hermia’s father is forcing her to wed the would-be swain Demetrius (Emilio Tirado). This forces the couple to flee into the forest with Demetrius following and his own rejected admirer/stalker Helena (Becca Ballenger) in hot pursuit.
A bumbling amateur acting troupe made up of Athenian laborers (Lou Liberatore, Warren Jackson, Em Grosland, Jan Leslie Harding, Jack Herholdt) appears in the same forest with the hope of rehearsing their absurd play Pyramus and Thisbe in secret. But unbeknownst to all of these mortals a supernatural feud is at hand; the fairy King Oberon (Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte) and Queen Titania (Jenny Strassburg) are at war, and thus the entire magical forest is out of joint, with unexpected results for everyone. Making the most of the mayhem is Oberon’s chief assistant, the mischievous Puck (Nick Cearley).
This production, expertly staged by Tamilla Woodard, is fast-paced, funny and often quite touching. The focus is on the story and the actors, and fortunately there is not a weak actor in the cast. As Bottom, Warren Jackson is disarmingly earnest and endearing, employing the same natural approach he employed to dramatically different effect when he portrayed the villainous Aaron earlier this year in The New York Shakespeare Exchange’s Titus Andronicus. King Oberon is all too often a lackluster role, but Guilarte expertly commands the stage and finds the humor in the character while managing pull double duty as the stately Theseus. As Puck, Cearley, with ever-present ukulele in hand, delivers wit, charm and a great deal of humorous musical commentary. The lovers are delightful, especially the alternately adored and spurned Athenian maidens played by Irving and Ballenger.
The heart of A Midsummer Night’s Dream resides in the story of the so-called rude mechanicals and their play, Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare was, after all, an actor. In this production the audience members find themselves not just laughing at the bumbling group of hopeless amateurs, but rooting for them as well. Liberatore, as the director Peter Quince, leads his devoted band into yet another brilliant surprise of Shakespeare’s, a lampoon of his own Romeo and Juliet. The bellows mender Francis Flute, forced against his will to play the doomed maiden Thisbe, is here played by actor Em Grosland, who is charmingly funny in the part. Jack Herholdt, as “Wall”, adds another layer of comedy with hilarious attempts at helping his fellow actors get through the play. And as “Moonshine”, Jan Leslie Harding had the audience laughing loudly as she stood, quaking with fear, squeaking out her few lines. The audience truly fell in love with these mechanicals.
There are quite a few cuts, the most lamentable being Theseus’ enchanting “The lunatic, the lover and the poet” speech. The actors all speak Shakespeare’s verse quite effectively and they are all devoted to the characters they play and the misadventures in which they find themselves. With its humor, romance and energy, Masterworks Theater Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the perfect opportunity to introduce people of all ages to the work of William Shakespeare. I can think of no finer compliment than that.