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A Midsummer Night’s Dream — Arden Theatre

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, in Philadelphia, through Sunday, April 9 — The lunatic, the lover, and the poet all seem to have in hand in framing Matt Pfeiffer’s direction of Shakespeare’s merry look at the wayward course of true love and the fickle natures of those who claim to feel ardor and plead fidelity.

The lunatic dominates. I’d call Pfeiffer’s production a hodge-podge but that might seem like a comment on one of its most consistent players, Dan Hodge, and that’s not what I intend.

The lunatic  takes first prize because Pfeiffer’s staging in a such a random, free-form collection of brilliant moments and bits, especially by Hodge and the ever-amazing Brandon J. Pierce, that play side by side with dreadful choices and showy comic attempts that fall flat. This mélange of the admirable and the appalling make the production seem unfocused and even amateurish. In the long run, Pfeiffer’s offering is OK and sporadically first-rate, but there’s dozens of times, no exaggeration,when you feel compelled to scream, “No, stop that nonsense,” or just go up and shake someone into discipline.

As with love, especially the politically motivated love between Theseus and Hippolyta, good and bad mingle with reckless abandon, some scenes simultaneously containing merit and merde, some performances being marvelous in one aspect and wanting in another.

Take Lindsay Smiling, an actor I usually admire for his understatedness and attention to character. As Theseus at the top of Shakespeare’s play, he is commanding, solicitous to his bride won in battle, Hippolyta, fair and even-minded to the lovers who are being disobedient to one of their fathers, Egeus, and able to console and listen openly while being steely enough to impose Athenian law. In this opening scene, crucial to setting up the main plot of the play, Smiling is everything a ruler can be, including purposefully sanguine when it comes to dealing with Katharine Powell’s sardonic moue-reliant ice goddess of Hippolyta. Smiling, as Theseus, exudes pride and magnitude. He can be witty and playful while being firm, flexible while adhering to statute, strategically oblivious to his bitter bride, and resolute even if something he must do goes against his taste for doing it. Smiling is a prince of elegance and politesse,

Then the scene reverts to the woods outside Athens, where mythical gods and spirits in residence and at spiteful play. Now, Smiling is playing Oberon, another strong leader, the king of the fairies. And he’s terrible. He gibbers and gibes like someone doing a fey comic turn. There’s no spine or character in this part of his performance. You see no parallel with Theseus, neither textural nor via consistency in acting. You wonder if this is really Lindsay Smiling and how he lost such command of his gifts as to offer this overblown performance that doesn’t seem to fit Oberon, or Smiling, at all. Too many scenes involving Oberon seem haphazard and disrupt “ANMD’s” flow, exceptions being his Mexican stand-off relationship with Mary Tuomanen’s Puck..

Take Rachel Camp. Another mixture of brilliance and disappointment.

In ways, Camp is the best in Pfeiffer’s cast. Her readings at Helena, especially when she suspects her peers of conspiring against her in some maddeningly Gaslighting game, are crisp, well-thought-out, and to the sharpest point. Camp ekes the comedy from every line and delivers Shakespeare’s barbs, with precision and aplomb. Through her performance, you know exactly who Helena is, and you hear how much Shakespeare knows about love, spite, confusion, and being put-upon by those you regard as your friends, one of whom you crave for your husband.

“Yes!” was my response to each of Camp’s character-revealing utterances. Helena is nailed, and Shakespeare is being presented in glorious form.

The only thing that keeps my assessment of Camp from being poetically rhapsodic and overweening in praise is her speaking voice.

When Camp says Helena’s first words at Theseus’s court, I thought, “Oy, that voice, no tone, no colors, it’s going to be a long night listening to this Helena.” Besides, I hated her costume which is ugly and looks as if it’s falling all over the place, as if the point was to make Helena physically less attractive than Taysha Maris Canales’s neat, compact Hermia. (Costumer Olivera Gajic does a much better job dressing the men than she does the women.)

All right, I was wrong about the worst of my first impressions. Camp, whose singing voice is splendid, does not translate its bright, musical timbre to her speaking voice, which seems shrill, pedestrian, and untrained. As the scenes in the woods unfolded, I ignored Camp’s rusty tone to revel in her surefire delivery of all Helena had to say. Fun was particularly at hand when Camp’s Helena did verbal, and physical, battle with Canales, who also has a way with a line and has vocal adroitness to go with it.

I learned from Smiling, Camp, and others that Pfeiffer’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was going to be more of a seesaw or teeter-totter than a roller coaster, that I would have to savor the fine moments and count to ten during some of the gummier parts.

Pfeiffer’s is a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” without a theme. Reading his program notes, I understand this is intentional, but plays are not random. Shakespeare leaves a lot of possibilities for what might be emphasized in this comedy, but “fall as things might” is not one of them.

Nor is it a good idea. Everything that sprawls needs a unifying point. Why have a director if helter skelter is the outcome?

Yet there’s a nagging irony about Arden’s “AMND.” While the story, as presented, is often scattershot and random in going about the Bard’s business, I heard, through Camp in particular, Shakespeare’s words with clarity that confirmed that which needs no confirmation, Shakespeare’s place at the first psychologist, the first person who understood people thoroughly and translated his knowledge to the stage via what were meant to be common entertainment. “You juggler, you cankerblossom!”

Aye, me, quite happy to hear the Bard’s wisdom and craft in line after line. If only the understanding of the language had led to a larger purpose in terms of suiting action, or voice, to the word, and word to the action. Language is key to Shakespeare. He’s a poet who wants you to hear his plays, but language is not all. During some passages, I felt as if Shakespeare was doing all the work, and the director and cast were staying aloofly out of his way. Other times, I feared the players did not trust the author enough.

Pfeiffer’s “AMND” had definite high points. I laughed at some of the antics. I was taken, once again, with the clarity with which the poetry was spoken. But I always felt like I was listening to a recitation instead of watching a presentation, Not one character, not even Camp’s Helena or Hodge’s witty Bottom, invited me into their plight or made me care what happened to anyone or if they’d find true love’s course or preferment by the Duke for histrionic grandeur. (Well, one actually did, but I’ll get to that later.)

Nothing registered as critical or important. I was seeing actors at play and not at work.

But, then, take Brandon J. Pierce. Here’s a multi=talent threat who made both of his parts in “AMND” funny and meaningful. His Demetrius is on the mark without being special. That is meant as a compliment. Like Canales as Hermia, Pierce sails along with more than efficiency and competence to play his part with distinction. You know who Demetrius is, and you see his attitude and situation at every moment through Pierce’s canny, naturalistic acting. There’s virility and purpose to Pierce’s work, which is continually outstanding. He may be the finest young actor in Philadelphia.

It’s in the usually forgotten, eminently forgettable part as the least of the rude mechanicals, the tailor, Robin Starveling, that Pierce achieves legend. I don’t know whether it was the actor’s idea, or Pfeiffer’s, or even Dan Hodge’s, but Pierce plays Starveling as a crusty, irascible old man who speaks and moves at a glacial pace, takes everything literally, and is apt to poke you with his cane if he thinks you’re being fresh, forward, or ridiculing.

What genius, to take a character usually more dismissible than the edited-out Mustardseed, and give him solid, unmissable form. Elongating his face and pulling his chin back in a grumpy frown, Pierce makes Starveling seem like the most unpleasant, most unpleasable person in Greece, if not on Earth. He is slow to hear and slow to speak, and when he does respond he does so in a testy, humorless croak as if each word was too precious to waste on the dense hearer. Even when that hearer is the Duke, Theseus, who Pierce’s Starveling treats as just one more whippersnapper.

This Starveling was an inspired bit of work. It is the crown among the creative aspects Pfeiffer obviously — Well he says it in those program notes. — gave his actors leeway to explore. Topping off this master stroke is Gajic dressing Starveling — Remember, he’s a tailor. — in a neat, well-fitting suit and perfect haberdashery. The oversized black-framed glasses add icing to a beautiful confection of a turn.

Then there is Dan Hodge.

Take Dan Hodge. “Please,” I beg, sometimes when he directs, although I loved the identifiably Hodgian “Waiting for Godot” at Curio this month.

In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hodge takes command of Bottom. He shows him to be the scene hog and supremely assured actor he is. Wit and creativity are afoot after all. Hodge basks in Bottom’s bombast when endowing him with a touch of the Everyman. You see why Bottom is liked by his neighbors and castmates while you see his proclivity to take over any scene or situation of which he’s a part.

Best of all, you see Bottom deliver the goods. The finest, most polished classical performance on the Arden stage during “AMND’s” opening night was Bottom’s moving speech as Pyramus discovering the bloody corpse of Thisbe and mourning over it before taking his own life. It’s Hodge playing Bottom playing Pyramus, and he generated actual tears. Hodge give Bottom the depth and talent to be an excellent Pyramus. That is more than acting. That’s thinking through a part and knowing how to give it the right comic touches, while Bottom unknowingly dons the ass’s head Puck fashions for him as joke on Titania, and the right surprise. This Bottom, for all of his braggadocio, is not the eager community theater striver who preens and overdoes as much on stage as he does in rehearsal. He’s an agora Olivier who plies his trade warping and woofing in a society in which the arts may not be a profession while, in modern New York or London, he would have the goods to be a star. Hodge knows his play, he knows his character, and he knows his Shakespeare. Few actors would have the guts to make Bottom a truly astute, superior actor within a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Hodge did, and the result was glorious, a flash of magnificence in an incompatibly seasoned stew. Danny, boy, when the inspiration hits, no one does it better.

Now it’s time to take Mary Tuomanen. Has anyone been more interesting on Philadelphia stages these past few seasons than Mary Tuomanen? I don’t think so. What a smart, tart woman!

But another push-me-pull-you performer as Puck.

Tuomanen had some fine line readings, but many depended more in making her voice musical or having Puck be sarcastically flip and self-consciously hip. I saw the fun in her sassy, teasingly insolent “I go, I go. See how I go,” and other bouncy, unusual readings, but I also saw Tuomanen having a good time as an actress without worrying about all aspects of the character. She didn’t know when to stop being showy and give Shakespeare some time and credit.

Tuomanen was enjoyable to watch, but I wasn’t sure she was always in the same play as everyone else, even when she grounded Lindsay Smiling’s Oberon by testing his wrath and powers with Puck’s saucy cheek.

While taking part of Tuomanen’s performance to task, I like her strutty, impudent physicality, enjoy her amazingly attractive shock of electric blue hair that didn’t make me miss her usual shock of the palest blond, and I really really really love, I mean really love, !!!, Tuomanen’s singing voice. What a magnificent instrument with gorgeous timbre, deeper and purer than I’d expect, and what command of notes and tones! Just mesmerizing! I am shocked I have not yet haunted YouTube, iTunes, and infernal sites of sundry variety to see samples of Tuomanen singing. Whenever there’s an album of Tuomanen crooning, I’m a sure sale. Amazon, where are you hiding “Bitter Homes and Gardens?”

Oh, and while as Puck, Tuomanen rode that perpetually busy teeter=totter I mentioned, she was aces as the snobby, supercilious major domo to Theseus, Philostrate. I see an Osric in her future.

You get the drift. That is, the idea that Pfeiffer allowed his production to meander wherever, so there were different quality performances, different styles of performance, individual choices that worked marvelously, and others that clashed, looked cloddish, or failed outright.

Laughs were rampant and usually generated by physical comedy, although Camp’s on-target readings of Helena’s most vituperative speeches tickled me the most. More even than Pierce’s Starveling. And let’s not forget Sean Close, who has shed the self-conscious mannered style that marred earlier performances to settle into a genuinely cool, assured performer, as seen is his clever, dapper Lysander. What’s changed most is Close’s discretion. He always had a handy bag of verbal and physical tricks. Now, like a good baseball manager or third base coach, Close knows when to employ each move in his repertoire and get the most from his versatility. He seems to have developed the assurance Sean Close is enough and doesn’t have to revert to Paul Lynde. You know he’s learned lessons when he is controlled and consistent within Pfeiffer’s permitted chaos.

The rude mechanicals, because each actor found something with which to endow his or her Athens tradesperson with individual character, were not tedious. Doug Hara was especially good at Peter Quince, trying to get things done efficiently while dealing with his diva of a lead actor and responding to innocuous suggestions he takes seriously. Hara also scored as Egeus.

Although Hodge is an inventive, entertaining Bottom, braying just enough to make a point without overdoing, enjoying the luxury of being part of Titania’s court, the passages involving the fairy king and queen and Bottom are the weakest in Pfeiffer’s production.

The Arden staging has original music by Alex Bechtel, which was jaunty and served a purpose. I know Philadelphia theater folks love and expect congratulation just for doing something that could be considered innovative or different, but while I found Bechtel’s score bright and lively, I didn’t find it necessary or enhancing. Nor did I think the tune choice, borrowed, original, or keyed to Shakespeare, a means for adding contemporaneity to Shakespeare’s work. I was impressed at how well the cast played instruments and used them at times for smart comic effect, and of course, I got lost in Mary Tuomanen’s voice and could have listened to her sing all night.

Thom Weaver’s lighting was the most effective element is creating moods and places. I especially enjoyed his illumination of the full and quarter moons on Paige Hathaway’s utilitarian set, which when bathed in orange light looked dreamlike.

Grade: C+

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