As an experienced arts critic, I don't ordinarily get especially excited about attending opening nights, much less become emotional over the curtain speech before a preview performance. You'll have to forgive my lack of journalistic objectivity this week, but I freely admit to getting a bit verklempt when Orlando Shakespeare Theater managing director Douglas Love-Ramos took the Walt Disney Amphitheater stage last Thursday night to introduce the troupe's triumphant reawakening of their original Lake Eola home. Because after an interminable year of shuttered venues, site-specific strolls and stuttering streaming experiments, Central Florida's most important professional theater company has returned to large-scale in-person performances. And even if their outdoor mounting of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which runs through April 17, misses some of Shakespeare's subtleties, there's genuine magic in this fairy tale.
Arriving downtown ahead of Midsummer's press preview, I swiftly remembered why Orlando Shakes abandoned their annual festivals on the lakeside stage 15 years ago. It's challenging at best to find metered street parking along Rosalind Avenue or Central Boulevard, and the nearest public parking garages are an inconvenient hike away. The amphitheater's wobbly metal benches seem to have intentionally been designed to be as butt-numbing as possible (bring your own cushion). And the ambient audioscape includes screaming emergency sirens, cranked-up car stereos, and the thumping beats from a neighboring bar. (They were nice enough to mute their jams for the majority of the show, but not the crucial closing soliloquies.)
While I probably would have carped about such barely controlled chaos during the B.C.E. (Before COVID Era), today I bow in acknowledgment of the extraordinary efforts the Shakes cast and crew expended to ensure the show could safely go on. As one of the region's first major Actors' Equity-approved productions since the pandemic started, Love-Ramos detailed their Advent Health-supported precautions, which include all staff being tested for COVID weekly (actors are tested three times a week) and mandatory masking for all audience members. Under Jim Helsinger's direction, unmasked actors are always blocked to stay six feet apart, and the Bard's five-act text has been trimmed down to 100 intermission-less minutes.
Those caffeinated Cliffs Notes cuts create a Midsummer that emphasizes broad comedy and Seussian rhymes at the expense of the central romantic quadrangle. That would be a major issue if the stage weren't stocked with A-list talent, starting at the top with Timothy Williams (using his best booming anime villain voice) as fairy king Oberon and Melanie Whipple as a witchy queen Titania worthy of a WandaVision spinoff. Trenell Mooring's Hermia is the epitome of "little [but] fierce," even if her rivalry with frenemy Helena (Janice Munk) generates far more heat than either enjoys with their sexless suitors Lysander (Christopher Creane) and Demetrius (Wildlin Pierrevil). And Greg Pragel's Puck milks much satyric mileage out of his running gags.
The biggest beneficiaries are the rude mechanicals, led by Anne Hering as Peter Quince (demonstrating due a technical snafu during previews that Orlando's answer to Dame Judi Dench doesn't need no damn microphone), and the legendary Philip Nolen's brilliantly braying embodiment of Nick Bottom. With the primary plotlines all trimmed to their barest essentials, this troupe of terrible thespians are inadvertently anointed stars of the show, and their "tedious brief" play-within-a-play becomes the evening's dramatic denouement instead of a palate-cleansing dessert.
Admittedly, the air-hugs, air-slaps and similar jokey references to pandemic restrictions, which amuse at first, detract from immersion in the Athenian fantasy after the fourth or fifth repetition. Fortunately, this killer cast compensates for the lack of emotional depth with an energetic enthusiasm that 16th-century groundlings would surely have appreciated.
I've seen many a Midsummer since working on a summer stock production nearly 30 years ago, and although Orlando Shakes' al fresco offering might not be the most textured take I've seen, after a year of lockdown I'm grading all theater on a curve. And there are some elements of this production that (as Duke Theseus says) "needs no excuse." Daylight obliterates designer Philip Lupo's lighting until almost halfway through the show, but when Bert Scott's iconic Ionic setpieces and Denise Warner's toga-tastic costumes are bathed in twinkling fairy light, blending with Britt Sandusky's Mendelssohn-accented soundtrack, the effect is as enchanting as anything you'll find at the amphitheater's namesake's attractions.
With tickets starting at just $22, there's no excuse not to support Shakes' return to the live entertainment we've all missed so much. And when the company lights up Lake Eola again next month with Little Shop of Horrors, I'm hoping I can evaluate it with no excuses, and that the weak and idle theme that was 2020 will seem no more yielding but a dream.