There's a clear divide between the characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream that can work against the play. On one side you have the noble Athenians — the lovers Hermia and Lysander, their friends and romantic rivals Helena and Demetrius — who are all various degrees of romantic and courtly. The other side of the line is populated by the morons who would be actors (the working class of Athens) and the troublemakers (the fairies in the forest). On stage it is the second half who get most of the laughs and generate the most excitement, which always makes the noble Athenians seem a trifle pale and boring.
Director Donna Northcott does yeoman's work in balancing these two sides in St. Louis Shakespeare's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but the deck is still stacked against the upper crust. The anarchic comedy duo of Oberon (Michael Juncal) and Puck (Joshua Nash Payne) reigns supreme in a high-energy production that wrings every last erg of comedy from a game and enthusiastic cast of young actors.
Hermia (Beth Wickenhauser) is at the center of an unwanted tug of war. She loves Lysander (Daniel Hayward), but her father wants her to marry Demetrius (Jimmy Krawczyk). Demetrius was formerly engaged to Helena (Laura Enstall), friend of Hermia, but now he only has eyes for Hermia. Lysander and Hermia plan to elope, but their flight through the nighttime woods is upended by a war between the fairies.
And those fairies are fantastic. Garbed goth-punk tatters designed by Wes Jenkins, the four attendants of the fairy queen — Cole Figus, Daniel Sukup, Duvaul Gamble and C. Blaine Adams — have few lines but distinct personalities. They squabble in the background, fight over bits of the Athenians' clothes and wander into the audience.
The Athenian lovers fight back against these silent pranksters in a battle royal that allows Wickenhauser in particular to flex her muscles — both actorly and actually — as she attempts to batter senseless both her would-be swains. It's a Northcott specialty, these rolling battles that are more acrobatic than bloody, and Wickenhauser makes this one a corker. She never duffs a line either, screaming beautiful invective even while dragging a tree stump behind her.
Of course, Oberon and his sidekick Puck are the architects of all this strife, and in a novel bit of staging, Oberon watches the fracas from a perch in the aisle. Puck heads to the lobby for snacks, which he dutifully brings his king. Juncal projects otherworldly power as the King of the Fairies, a supernatural being clearly fascinated by these mad humans. Payne is a brilliant foil for his majesty. Eager and twitchy, he flits around the theater with abandon, except for those occasions when his angry liege has battered his nuts.
Yes, there's a superabundance of crotch abuse in this one, with Juncal being an observed master of the phantom dick-tap. First rule of Shakespeare, people: Keep it saucy. Again, a Northcott specialty.
Of course, everything works out for the best for all parties in the end. Midsummer draws to a close with Puck alone on the stage asking the audience for applause if they enjoyed themselves. We barely have time to put our hands together before dance music blasts out of the house PA and the entire cast assembles on stage to perform an intricately choreographed dance number (courtesy of Duvaul Gamble). It's superfluous to the story perhaps, but it's a hell of a fine way to gild a magnificent lily.
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