THE AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER has moved Alvin Epstein's shimmeringly baroque Midsummer Night's Dream downtown, but no artistic departures accompany the geographical transit. This is the same intricately woven, counterpoint-heavy production that played Brattle Street last spring; there are cast changes, some for the better and others not, and some cuts, but the principles of ensemble and musicality that guide Epstein's conception of the play have shepherded it successfully to the Wilbur stage.
With the aid of Henry Purcell's rich-textured Fairy Queen score, Epstein underscores the conflicts in Shakespeare's text. His lovers are violent hotbloods; his fairies are insect-like nature sprites, inhuman and unsettling; his "rude mechanicals" quarrel with earnestness and acrobatic precision in their stage business. The curtain rises at the Wilbur to reveal a Renaissance tapestry of equestrian combat, fair enough warning of the production's themes, and when Theseus (Harry Murphy) and Hippolyta (Karen MacDonald) have it out in a mock combat during the overture, the audience gets the message.
But there's more to this vision of Midsummer than just a lot of tussling. The world is out of kilter on all four levels of the play--in court, among the lovers, in the amateur acting company, and in the fairy world--and Epstein gives his production momentum through the successive resolution of these imbalances.
In remounting the production once again (last spring's was a revival of a Yale Rep production), Epstein has fully succeeded in keeping alive a sense of interest in the play and innovation in its presentation. Other elements that remain constant from last spring include the sharply refined musical performances led by Daniel Stepner, the wonderfully alien fairy costumes, and Carmen de Lavallade's sinuous choreography.
Of the performers, the "mechanicals" remain nearly identical to, and equally adept as, last spring's company, with the welcome addition of Chris Clemenson, who makes an impassively cheerful Snout and a ponderously funny Wall. The male lovers, Stephen Rowe's Demetrius and Eric Eliee's Lysander, are as energetic a pair as they were last season; new faces animate the female roles--Cynthia Darlow as Hermia and Cherry Jones as Helena. Darlow's Hermia thrusts her lower lip out at life with a little-girl pout that is sometimes winning and a whine that's sometimes shrill; Jones is more the robust than the morose Helena, bludgeoning Demetrius with her lust. The four lovers interact with a vigor that sometimes shakes the planks of the set, providing an object lesson in how these roles can both stand out individually and click with their counterparts.
On the debit side, Thomas Derrah's hulking Puck fails to spark the rest of the production in quite the same inhuman way as Mark Linn-Baker's in the spring. Derrah, verbally agile but physically sluggish, acts the comic sidekick; where Linn-Baker's animality was ferral, Derrah's is docile, dog-like--Oberon's best friend.
THE PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS of the Wilbur work against Epstein's spaciously mystical vision of the Greenwood. The set--a giant wooden ramp curving upwards toward a silvery, reflecting moon--seemed to stretch for miles on both sides at the Loeb, and when the fairy bands tripped across the stage their motion seemed part of a supernatural current. At the Wilbur they emerge from behind one white proscenium and plunge behind the other. The singers make good use of the Wilbur's side balconies for antiphonal effects, but overall the theater's smaller size cramps some of this production's style.
The ART Midsummer Night's Dream, though, is a durable enterprise. Changes in cast or location may alter its nuance but not its essence. Epstein's production strips the corroded encrustations of audience expectation from the familiar play, letting Shakespeare's poetry shine with its own unreflected light, magnified but not tinted by Purcell's music. It is a production worth reviving over and over again, as long as there are directors and actors willing to look at it as lucidly as it looks at Shakespeare.
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