The lobby is packed. Elbow to elbow, wine glass to wine glass, Alley patrons mill about, dressed to the nines. All the usual suspects are present: bone-thin socialites, scrappy local actors, hunkering critics. It's all stiff stuff until a smarmy fellow with burnt-orange hair and a velvet smoking jacket swaggers through the crowd, commanding the room as he goes: Drink more alcohol! Have more fun! He's Philostrate, Shakespeare's party dude extraordinaire. And before anyone has taken her seat, the Alley's new season has begun with a bang. Philostrate is followed by a handful of groupies dressed in carnival clothes -- ruffled panties, pink garters, torn stockings and silky tutus fluffed up with yards of gathered netting. Leave it to Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd to envision A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare's most famous comedy, as one long outrageously crazy dreamscape.
The fun doesn't stop in the lobby. There's a band on stage that plays everything from Gary Wright's '70s pop hit "Dream Weaver" to Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." With the tunes serving as intro music, Theseus (Todd Waite) and Hippolyta (Elizabeth Heflin), along with the four young lovers who will be forever changed before this play is over, find their way to the stage. Whether swinging from a rope, skipping down the aisle or simply walking with the grace of a queen, they get there.
It's nothing short of miraculous that out of this Freudian dream/acid trip comes Shakespeare's finely wrought comedy, fully intact and not much worse for the wear. Gone are any tender moments of love. And don't expect to see anything even remotely erotic, though the play is supposed to be all about amour. Instead, director Boyd has taken a long postmodern flight of fancy and filled his midsummer night with the sort of fairies and lovers that one might find in Japanese anime or at Cirque du Soleil. He's also plumbed the depths of scatological humor and found that it doesn't matter from which social milieu his audience hails: When the Bard's bawdy butt jokes are played for all they're worth, everyone screams with laughter.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
Through Saturday, November 4 (713)228-8421 $32-$49
The high-tech special effects are magic. Chris Parry's lights conjure up images from ancient legends. Pools of aqua water turn to blood with the sweep of a hand, and whole worlds go from celery-green to poppy-orange when a fairy's mood changes. Vincent Mountain's set is full of enchanting surprise, and sound designer Malcolm Nicholls fills the theater with beating drums, tinkling bells and the foreboding cracks of mythic thunder.
More clowns than actors here, the performers hold their own against the wild backdrop. Especially strong is the cast of characters who create the play within the play. As usual, John Tyson, as Francis Flute, steals the show with big balloon boobs tucked in his shirt. Hilarious, too, is James Black as Nick Bottom, who is turned into an ass by the mischievous Puck (Jonathan Scarfe). And Charles Krohn is absolutely perfect as Peter Quince, the playwright who bites at his knuckles when he hears the words of his own script.
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The whole thing is, as the woman behind me put it, "absolutely crazy." But it is also absolutely audacious and funny, as wild a dream as you're bound to have in a long, long while.