A Midsummer Night's Dream

Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St., through May 9, 922-8900

SWEET DREAM: Pearce Bunting and Melanye Finister

Puck (Robert Christophe) ambles out onto the spacious playing space of the Arden Theatre Company's brand new F. Otto Haas Stage, peers through his orange sunglasses, plays a blue note on his harmonica and the houselights magically go out. Christophe shoots the audience his widest ear-to-ear grin, signaling to us (as only his smile can) that we're in store for an evening of sheer fun.

And so we are. Aaron Posner's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream delivers what it promises. Oversize brass beds are suspended in midair at disorienting angles, and others, equally askew, are rolled about the emerald and cobalt stage of David P. Gordon's setting. Puck and his master Oberon (Pearce Bunting) flip the blood-red flower oozing the magical love potion across the stage by sleight of hand (Teller, of Penn and Teller, served as magic consultant on the production), occasionally transforming it into a red water pistol. The two fairies (Michelle Nagy and Amy Caitlin Carr) serenading Titania (Melanye Finister) to sleep in her bower/brass bed get so carried away with their gospel riffs that they wake her up. Hippolita (Finister again), a fiery Latina, reads Brides magazine, lounging in her silk pajamas, as she prepares for her wedding with Theseus (Bunting again). Puck, putting the love-potion-addled Athenian lovers to sleep after their misadventure in the woods, reads them Good Night Moon before bonking them on the head.

It's all wonderfully silly, endlessly inventive and loads of fun. Posner knows when to milk a good gag, and when to keep the comedy moving (the lovers' quarrel, which can often seem endless in performance, zips right along). And he has some of the most spirited actors in town (luxuriously so in the four lovers, played by Jennifer Childs, Grace Gonglewski, Scott Greer and Ian Merrill Peaks) to sustain the comedy and flash us their best smiles.

It's all wonderfully
silly, endlessly inventive
and loads of fun. But
don't expect to see the
dark corners of the play

Don't expect to hear Oberon explain to Puck that, for all of his apparent malevolence, he and Titania are "spirits of another sort." Don't expect to hear Helena, shocked by Hermia's apparent betrayal, recall the time when their souls and identities were so intertwined that they were "Like a double cherry, seeming parted/ But yet a union in partition." Don't expect Oberon to reforge his relationship with Titania, after she has awakened from her drug-induced infatuation with Bottom (Lenny Haas), with music and a dance. Don't expect to hear Theseus explain, profoundly, to his wedding guests that the magic of the theater is completed by the audience's imagination, not the actors'. And don't expect Oberon and Titania to reappear in Theseus' household after the triple wedding there, to sanctify the marriages and bless their children; the wedding revelers are too busy dancing the Macarena to be bothered with such solemnity. They, and Posner, are too busy simply having fun.

It's not that the actors lack the emotional resources to explore these dark corners of the play. When we see Bunting and Finister as Oberon and Titania surrender to their sexual attraction even in the midst of their quarrel over the changeling Indian boy; when we hear Childs as Hermia, her dignity affronted, respond to having been called a "puppet"; when Gonglewski, as Helena, begins to conclude that all three of her friends are conspiring against her, we can sense that there's a depth of feeling, and a set of issues about sex, identity, dignity, betrayal, pregnancy and child-rearing ready to rise to the surface. But it's all kept down as forcibly and as decisively as Puck bonking the lovers on the head. Even the doubling of Theseus and Hippolita with Oberon and Titania (and what production of the play hasn't doubled them since Peter Brook's landmark production in 1970?) seems to serve no real purpose.

One of the most delightful comic insights of Posner's production is that the working-class amateur actors who stage "Pyramus and Thisbe" for the wedding party, for all their ego and all their technical incompetence, really love the theater. Quince (Tony Braithwaite) is a stage-struck British theaterphile, Starveling (William B. Collins) is an aging flower-child on a romp, and Greg Giovanni turns Flute's drag performance of Thisbe into a full-blown diva star turn.

When Quince and his friends make their first appearance, we hear Judy Garland sing "That's Entertainment" over the loudspeakers.

And so it is.

-Cary M. Mazer