A Midsummer Night's Dream Captivates in Forest Park 

click to enlarge Titania (Nancy Anderson) catches Bottom (Stephen Pilkington) in her web.

J. DAVID LEVY

Titania (Nancy Anderson) catches Bottom (Stephen Pilkington) in her web.

It was a typical St. Louis night in June, with blistering heat fighting sweltering humidity for the right to squeeze the life out of you. And yet the crowd at Friday night's performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream was massive, stretching right up to the top of Shakespeare Glen. It was your typical opening night audience, lively and appreciative despite the weather. But this wasn't opening night — Midsummer is in its second week, and it's still packing 'em in.

That's a testament to the work done by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and artistic director Rick Dildine, and a credit to the company's reputation as a crowd-pleaser. And make no mistake: In spite of the oppressive weather, the crowd was pleased.

And how could we not be? This Midsummer (directed with panache by Dildine) is a feast for the senses. Scenic designer Scott C. Neale's set includes a forest backdrop with doors cunningly hidden from the ground up into the treetops, and a walkway that wraps around the stage proper and empties into a slightly lower and smaller fore stage. That last bit can be problematic, because if you're sitting more than halfway up the hill you can only see the heads of the tallest actors when they use the small stage — even if you're in a chair.

You'll want to see these actors, because costume designer Dottie Marshall Englis has created a bonanza of color and texture. Our young Athenian lovers Hermia (Cassia Thompson) and Helena (Rachel Christopher) wear breezy summer dresses of pink lemonade and traditional lemonade, respectively. The fairies who bedevil them in the woods are garbed in fantastic and colorful outfits that would not be out of place at a Venetian carnival. And beautiful Titania (the seductively regal Nancy Anderson) wears a brilliant sapphire gown made of roughly an acre of shimmering material, with a slit up to her thigh.

As visually appealing as the show is, though, what makes it sing are the twin talents of Cassia Thompson and Rachel Christopher. Both have wonderful, distinctive voices, and they use them entirely in service of the text. Whether professing their love for their beaus, or hurling insults at one another or rolling around the stage punching and being dragged off each other — they never strain nor reach for the rhyme. Both of them are sublime. This is how Shakespeare should sound: alive, melodious and entrancing.

If there is a flaw in the show, it is that Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-the-play performed by the rude mechanicals, goes on too long (and is mostly unseen because of the aforementioned sightline issue). The reasoning behind its lengthy inclusion is clear: When you pair a timeless comedy bit written by a genius with a handful of the city's most talented actors (Jerry Vogel, Reginald Pierre, Alan Knoll), the temptation to luxuriate in it is surely too strong to resist. But after seeing their rehearsals and the prologue that lays out everything that's about to happen, actually watching the performance is a bit of burden, made heavier by dint of it no longer being a surprise. (Although Paul Cerighino's Theseus makes it go down smoother; the posh ennui heavy in his voice when the gang inquires how he likes it is perfection.)

Still, minor quibbles. You can't beat the heat, so get out there and enjoy it while you can. Summer doesn't last forever, and neither will this midsummer dream.

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