A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Alley Theatre Fails to Charm

The setup:

Two years ago, Ira Glass, host of the beloved and popular public radio show This American Life, sent the Internet into a tailspin and flung the arts community into a horrified, head shaking tempest. The offense? Glass, after seeing a production of King Lear starring John Lithgow, tweeted, “@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I'm realizing: Shakespeare sucks.”

How, Bard fans cried? How could he possibly say/think that? C’mon. they unanimously asserted, Shakespeare is without question the greatest playwright that ever lived, offering up not just stakes, but stories that still greatly resonate. Glass eventually softened his response somewhat, but for my critic and theater-junkie friends, the wound was too deep to be salved into quick healing.

I too felt that dissing Shakespeare in this way was foolish at best and artistically blind at worst. Except, in my opinion, when it comes to one play. In this case I thought Glass just may have it right. A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be one of the Bard’s most popular and enduring comedies, but even though I have seen it umpteen times and in all manners of staging, costume, era and cast diversity, it’s a play that consistently bores me to tears.

Sure, the mystical elements of a land run by fairies can be enchantingly beautiful, but for me the magic wears thin past the aesthetic. The meta-theatrical play-within-a-play feature has some great, physically comedic moments, but never fails to drag on way too long for my liking. While I happily accept the love triangles Shakespeare offers up in his other comedies, the switch-and-bait Athenian foursome tickle me not one bit in this narrative. And while there’s no doubting that the linguistic and narrative acrobatics gifted to fairy Puck are plentiful, I have yet not to be utterly annoyed by the character.

I tell you all this not to try to sway anyone to the dark side with me, but merely to come clean about my personal opinion. And to assure you that as much as I possibly can, my feelings about Midsummer itself will in no way color what I am about to say about the Alley Theatre’s current production of the play. But I will also say, hang on, folks, even with my biases tossed to the wind, this one is going to be a bumpy ride.

The execution:

Since Midsummer is a Shakespearean comedy, let’s begin with the critique punch line — save for a few very well-executed, physically funny bits in the second act, this is by far one of the worst productions of Midsummer I’ve ever experienced.

To be fair, this is not an easy show to stage. There are three settings and four distinct sets of characters to deal with. There’s the Duke and Queen who are to be married. A troupe of talentless actors called the Mechanicals who rehearse a play to perform at their wedding. A king and queen of fairyland, Oberon and Titania, who are arguing over the custody of an orphan boy. Finally, there are the young Athenians Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena, who all love or loath one another in incongruent turns.

But instead of leaning into the challenges these elements present, director Gregory Boyd and his creative team seem to have simply thrown up their hands and instead offered us very little by way of compelling presentation in either set design, costuming, musical accompaniment and, most important, performance.

Industrial and bare. It’s not a description one imagines using for an Alley production. After all, this is the rich-coffer company that can afford the elaborate sets that make us oooh and aaah. But here, not only did the Alley go minimal, but at times scenic designer Vincent Mountain’s sets were nothing more than barren stage floor and walls. Occasionally a big old painted cut-out of a moon appeared, and there was also a terribly ugly, brown-hued, landscape-y canvas of a forest that unfurled, but mostly it was raw space. While part of me has to congratulate the Alley for going so against type, especially for a production that just begs for lush forest moments, opulent royal settings and ethereal fairy design, ultimately the sparseness of the space felt wrong. Perhaps it was the largeness of the stage (here in full thrust) or the smallness of what was performed on it, but this production left me longing to see what the theater could have done with all its bells and whistles.

While the set design at least was going for a look, most of Judith Dolan’s costumes seemed designed to make us look as little as possible. The Athenian lovers, clad in nondescript, unfashionable modern clothing; the fairy royalty, in mediocre sparkle; and the Mechanicals, in dull workman’s uniforms, all produced barely a visual yawn. But a yawn is better than the giggles the fairy costumes delivered. With Day-Glo colorful short wigs, blackened eyes, sports bra tops, cycle shorts and chiffon skit pieces, they looked like a cross between a Soul Cycle class and Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner.

Music and song in Midsummer is nothing new, but it was intriguing to have a live band (almost in the stage rafters) to accompany the actors as they burst into song or simply needed a beat for a bit of Shakespeare rap. But despite a few nifty drum riffs and some nice base strumming bits, these poor up-in-the-clouds musicians were barely used. Goodness knows the whole thing could have used some color or pizzazz, and no doubt a good dose of funky music could have been just the tonic needed.

However, all of this could have been easily overlooked if the performances onstage were stellar, which they were not by a long shot. The majority of them, anyway. As the Duke and Oberon, John Feltch showed prowess with Shakespeare’s words, naturally emoting rather than reciting, drawing us into his machinations with ease. As Hermia, Elizabeth Bunch likewise was able to lure our ear past the rhymes and into the rhythms that allowed us to listen to the character rather than the writing. The rest of the cast, however, fared from mediocre to downright unbearable.

Most disappointing was Jay Sullivan as Puck. While he looked splendid with his thrummy horned wig, Iggy Pop-ish lithe but ripped bare chest and furry black Hammer-pants, Sullivan lacked even the slightest ability to convey the impish, mischievous nature that is Puck. I’d mentioned earlier that my annoyance for this character runs deep, but here it was played with such milquetoast limpness that I found myself longing for the manipulative, over-the-top, waggish Puck that at least makes one sit up and take notice.

But then milquetoast is better than unwatchable, and unfortunately that was the case with Josie De Guzman’s Titania. Shakespeare in the mouth of an actor unable to bring out the music of the words is a painful sight, and De Guzman, with her cardboard physicality and her monotone delivery that suddenly turned singsong for no reason, was like nails on a chalkboard. Not to mention her various singing jags, which would have been unintentionally funny had they not been so weirdly shocking.

And yet with all that was wrong with this production, most of it hitting us in the face in the first act, Boyd did manage to pull off two excellent, crowd-pleasing comedic scenes in the second act that made me glad I had to stick around.

The first comes as the four Athenians scramble to find their way back to the ones they love (or are now made to love) after Puck mistakenly casts a spell on them. The fighting, scrabbling, chasing, grabbing, schlepping and screaming that this foursome do are remarkable and remarkably funny. As Lysander (Chris Hutchinson) and Demetrius( Michael Brusassco) heatedly bicker over which woman they love and belong to, the pair deftly eschew any pat masculine sparring and instead give us wonderfully funny, sexually liberated comedy. Even funnier is the brawl between Hermia (Bunch) and Helena (Melissa Pritchett) as the women throw off dainty female traits and go for broke with each other.

As successful (if too long and beside the point, as always) is the actual performance of the Mechanicals’ play for the Duke and Queen just before the end of the show. Men dressed as women, actors forgetting their lines, scrotum hitting, lions ravaging everything – it sounds juvenile and it is. But here Boyd is able to work magic and make this silly scene the near funniest and best part of the evening.

The verdict:

Questions: Do two wonderfully funny physical scenes make up for almost 1.5 hours of worse after bad? Does a company that can afford to do so much but does so little deserve to be judged more harshly? With so many terrific actors in Houston, does a company that continues to stick with less talented company members do itself a disservice by not changing things up?

I have more questions to ask. Like why, besides the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, did the Alley program Midsummer? Why this show and why now? What, in this incarnation, does this play say to us living in this city/country and era?

I can’t necessarily answer any of these for you. You’ll need to think about them and go see the show for yourself to figure it out.

I can say, however, that if nothing else, I’m glad I saw this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, if only to be able to think about these issues for myself. More important, this production has gifted me with the realization that perhaps in the end, it’s not that Shakespeare "sucks" when it comes to Midsummer, but rather those who do it such disservice onstage.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through November 5 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For tickets call 713-220-5700 or visit $30-$73.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman