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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

Folio Theatre Company

It's easy to see why the Folio Theatre hit on the idea of setting A Midsummer Night's Dream at Woodstock; with the 25th anniversary of the legendary rock festival approaching, this young, actor-driven troupe must have thought it would be fun and even instructive to uncover the parallels in Shakespeare's comedy about urban youths lost in a wood transformed by a potion squeezed from a magic blossom. Talk about flower power!

As it turns out, the Folio folks needn't have bothered; this Dream is strong enough to stand on its own without any groovy gimmickry. Directed by Second City teacher Jack Sanderson, this is terrific storefront Shakespeare--intimate and immediate, funny and affecting, physically imaginative and spoken with a wonderful mix of practiced articulation and conversational spontaneity.

The Woodstock trappings (including selections from the movie sound track) are actually the show's least convincing components. Despite all the tie-dyes and bell-bottoms and long hair and love beads, these young actors have no real feel for the hippie sensibility. Nor does the play support a late-60s style: an important part of the story is the heroine Hermia's determination to remain a virgin until marriage, and sexual abstinence was not exactly the rage at Woodstock. The tone of this show is closer to the goofy innocence of mid-60s beach-blanket movies than to the anything-goes experimentalism of the summer of '69.

That's just fine--pseudosophistication is the last thing A Midsummer Night's Dream needs. Its prank-filled plot comes off cruel if played for worldly laughs; the interlocked narratives of romantic yearning and sexual scheming in mortal and magical spheres require a lighter-than-air touch not to bog down in cynicism and complexity. The Folio actors play Shakespeare's erotic games with the joyful energy and brisk pace of a volleyball game--though they never alter the text or muck up its meaning.

Indeed, this is just about the clearest Shakespeare I've ever heard. Certainly it's the only Midsummer Night's Dream that has made me enjoy the primary romantic plot as much as the secondary clowning; the actors playing the lovers (with just the right mix of sweetness and dumbness) have fully internalized their lines, so each scene clicks. And their naturalness and easy comprehensibility heighten the writing's blithe perfection. The actors' comfort with the dialogue (deceptive--it takes tremendous discipline to make speech sound so easy) is all the more impressive considering the rambunctious horseplay that punctuates much of the production, the pratfalls and chases and athletic bounding about the tiny stage. (Melissa A. Gaspar's prettily colored set is bare except for tie-dyed trees hanging from an impressionistic blue and pink wall.)

In a uniformly fine ensemble, special praise is due Julie Cohen's tiny terror of a Hermia and Matt Caton's likably lovestruck Lysander; Rick Schnier's mischievous, air guitar-playing Puck; Brendan Sullivan's earnest Quince (his introduction of the "Pyramus and Thisby" play-within-a-play is a hilarious example of the kind of Shakespearean overacting Folio avoids); and David Mitchell Ghilardi as a primeval, highly sexual fairy king and Deborah Crable as his black-magic-woman queen (their pantomimed battle with invisible magic rays is executed with the thrilling panache of a good sword-and-sorcery movie).

Most memorable, though, is Paul E. Mullins's Bottom, the clown Puck outfits with the head of a donkey. By far the most charming interpretation of the role I've seen since Bert Lahr's some 35 years ago, Mullins's is also the least condescending I can recall. His blustery Bottom is no exaggerated buffoon but an everyman prone to the same delusions and vanities as the rest of us; like the great early film clowns, he invites our empathy, not our mockery. This Bottom's metamorphosis exposes the ass in all of us, and his spiritually transformed wonderment upon returning to full humanity is one of the loveliest moments I've experienced in a theater.

Make no mistake: this is a low-budget production and non-Equity company, and anyone looking for high style and elaborate effects will be disappointed. But the fresh energy and feeling these athletic, intelligent young artists bring to a classic make for exceptionally entertaining and invigorating theater. Far out.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brian McConkey.

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