The Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival is getting its money's worth out of Shakespeare's timeless comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. OSF's current production, at the Walt Disney Amphitheater alongside Lake Eola, is the third rendering of the play the troupe has performed and the second mounted by Jim Helsinger, the company's artistic director, in only a few years.
And though an April evening at the lakeside can be decidedly un-midsummery, the play's delirious plot, its fantastical characters, its themes of romance and friendship and its spectacular settings courtesy of scenic designer Joseph Rusnock and lighting designer Eric T. Haugen provide just the right amount of extra warmth on a chilly spring night.
For those not conversant with the play, its machinations bounce with ease and fancy between the fairy world of the woods and the farcical world of humans. The romantic characters are a pair of noble Athenian youths, Lysander (Timothy Williams) and Demetrius (David Hardie), and their counterparts, the beautiful (but short) Hermia (Heather Leonardi) and her best friend, the geeky Helena (Mindy Anders). Love and loathing abound as the couples enter into a roundelay that's begun in painful earnestness.
Their dance of desire soon becomes confused, though, due to the incompetent meddling of some forest folk namely Oberon, King of the Fairies (Esau Pritchett), and Puck, his pixie slave (Christopher Patrick Mullen) who, among other pursuits, delight in dousing sleepers' eyes with magical flora that make them fall in love with the first being they see upon awakening. A third storyline concerns a sextet of clownish tradesmen who are hoping to entertain Theseus, the King of Athens (Pritchett again), and his fiancee, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Jean Tafler), at their upcoming nuptials.
A successful production of this romantic comedy depends upon savvy casting and a physically charged performance style that can make the most out of Shakespeare's fast-paced action. Helsinger and his associate director, David Lee, have scored exceedingly well on both counts. The members of the ensemble are all nearly pitch-perfect, and aside from a few instances in which Helsinger goes after easy laughs with bits and pieces of unjustified character schtick, he has cooked up a brace of funny and fun comic routines that bubble up from Shakespeare's slapstick cauldron.
The four lovers, whose relationship dynamics take a little while to ratchet up, get to shine in the latter scenes of the play, as they discharge their pent-up sexual proclivities with outlandish physicality. When Hardie's Demetrius rips off his shirt while challenging Williams' Lysander to a brawl, his testosterone-laced chicken dance telegraphs the passionate silliness inherent in the play's romantic meanderings. Leonardi's explosive catfighting, set off by derisive comments about her diminutive stature, is also delightful.
Pritchett is a magnificent Oberon, utilizing his Mr. Universe physique, mellifluous baritone, withering gaze and reptilian mien to great effect. Mullen, who gave a powerfully idiosyncratic performance as Hamlet some years back, makes a frenzied, acrobatic Puck; we believe that he could indeed "put a girdle 'round about the earth in 40 minutes." Even Mustardseed, one of the forest fairies, gets a spirited and ingratiating portrayal (from company stalwart Sarah Hankins) as do all the woodland denizens.
But the evening's comedy award goes to the actor with the plum role of Bottom, the brash would-be player whose continual ability to make an ass of himself becomes all too real in the magical atmosphere of the wood. Brad DePlanche's performance is a triumph: His timing is impeccable, his vocal agility staggering and his manic inventiveness suggestive of the daring brilliance of clown/comedians like Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters. He's a Bottom to top any night midsummer's or otherwise.