A Midsummer Night's Dream may be regarded as one of the Bard's most lightweight works, but in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shootings, the fairy-filled romantic fantasy gains a bit of gravitas in Howler's Theatre and Unseen Images Theatre's gender-bent environmental production. Ancient Athens has been transplanted to today's Stonewall Bar on West Church Street, with the GLBT club's outdoor bar serving as an al fresco amphitheater.
Duke Theseus (Todd Craft) and Queen Hippolyta (Marcie Schwalm) have declared that headstrong Hermia (Tiana Akers) must abandon her hipster beau, Lysander (Nick Lubke), and marry muscular Demetrius (Domino Thomas), who is pursued by the lovelorn Helenus (Scott Browning). Puck (Charlie Wright), mischievous servant of the fairy rulers Oberon (Monica Mulder) and Titania (Melissa Dianna Coakley), uses an enchanted flower to confuse the romantic couples, magically esnaring incompetent actor Nick Bottom (Sean Kerrigan) and his troupe of "rude mechanicals" en route.
This Midsummer is presented in a "rough theater" style befitting the unconventional venue. The props and sets are minimal but amusingly handmade, and though the cast may struggle to declaim over the drag queen trivia blaring from the balcony above, once the sun goes down the courtyard setting becomes quite enchanting. Co-director Scott Browning, who edited the script down to a 100-minute one-act, has assigned himself the plum role of Helenus (Helena, in the original), and invests a character often portrayed as a doormat with a sense of purpose and backbone. Akers' Hermia is passionate yet vulnerable, though she doesn't strike as many sparks with Lubke as Thomas does with Browning, and Kerrigan's Inigo Montoya accent is both hilarious and almost entirely unintelligible.
Pacing is peppy from the outset, with exterior staircases and ladders used to facilitate flowing transitions; however, some additional interactive blocking invading the audience's space would have been appreciated. Between environmentally induced acoustical issues, some uneven performances, and the script's extreme abbreviation, perhaps this isn't the ideal Midsummer to initiate viewers who are unfamiliar with the story, though the rom-com plot is simple enough to follow.
But the decision to perform the play at a gay club and swap the genders of several characters has undeniable political implications in today's post-Pulse environment, even if only the pronouns have been changed. Certain key lines – such as "reason and love keep little company together nowadays" – seem especially resonant now, with Shakespeare's repeated invocation of the word "love" finding an echo in Lin-Manuel Miranda's "love is love is love" speech. Because whether it's the 16th century or 2016, the question "what fools these mortals be?" will never go out of style.