As I drove east down Spring Street toward Stark Naked Theatre's playhouse at Studio 101, where Shakespeare's glorious nocturne A Midsummer Night's Dream awaited, what should appear dominating the downtown skyline but an incredibly huge, rising full moon, bright and gigantic like a harbinger of spring's beginning or wonders to appear. It had to be an omen of good things to come. Alas and alack, when the show was over, the moon had returned to its rightful place, still full but a lot smaller and far away, smothered in clouds. It had been an omen all right.
Co-directed by Naked's artistic directors, Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, Dream is produced in association with the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance, using three current students and a former alumnus among the 11-member cast. On a much smaller scale, Naked's Dream bookends the Alley Theatre's As You Like It from last month. Both productions offer surprising similarities: wayward directorial tone (when in doubt, try everything), a pretty Edwardian look in costuming, minimal and impressionistic settings, and some illuminating performances, which only makes one yearn for what might have been.
Written circa 1595, probably immediately after Romeo and Juliet, Dream is Shakespeare at his most magical. Full of moonbeams and gossamer, it seems written on cobweb. Combining ancient myth, folklore and pastoral romance, the master weaves a fantastic story all about love, which, as he tells us in some of his most rhapsodic poetry, has its own dreamy enchantment. In a moonlit forest, humans and fairies interact, falling in and out of love. While the turmoil for the characters is very real and serious -- death or the nunnery is the choice offered to Hermia at play's start -- no one is ever in grave danger, thanks to the power of Shakespeare's lighter-than-air approach. The play practically bounces in delight. We hear Shakespeare's laughter when he writes, and we laugh with him.
Hermia (Skyler Sinclair) loves Lysander (Jesse Merrill), but her father demands she marry Demetrius (Crash Buist), whom Helena (Molly Searcy) loves. Hermia and Lysander flee Athens to elope, followed by an outraged Demetrius, in turn stalked by lovesick Helena.
Into the woods they go, where Oberon, king of the fairies (Luis Galindo), is having love problems of his own with obstinate wife Titania (Courtney Lomelo). He wants her newest acquisition, a boy from India, for his retinue, but Titania refuses to give him up. To punish her, Oberon will enchant her with the juice from a magic flower, which when daubed on her eyes will make her instantly fall in love with the next person (or beast) she sees.
While setting his plot in motion, Oberon is struck by Helena's heartfelt if over-the-top entreaties to Demetrius, who maliciously spurns her. I'll use the flower on them, he conspires. This interference might work, but Oberon's sprite Puck (Philip Hays) mistakes Lysander for Demetrius -- all Athenians look alike -- which, naturally, makes Lysander fall madly for Helena, much to the outrage of Hermia.
Shakespeare then plays his trump: a sextet of bumpkins (weaver, tinker, tailor, carpenter, et al.) who go into the forest to rehearse their "lamentable tragedy" to celebrate the Duke's upcoming wedding. These ordinary guys, with imperturbable Bottom (Drake Simpson) as life force, whirl into Shakespeare's well-oiled machinery with low comedy relief and the most sunny of dispositions. They're the play's heart. Oberon chooses Bottom for his revenge against his queen. He has Puck change Bottom into an ass, and arranges for Titania to wake up and discover him. She's ecstatic when she spies him, kissing his ears and weaving flowers into his hide. He's so sweet, he doesn't quite know what to make of this absolute adoration. It's like, You talkin' to me?
The complications multiply and spin merrily, every plot device fresh and clear. Lovers are interchangeable and so alike when in love: blind, rash and foolish. It's a romp that thoroughly beguiles. What's missing at Stark Naked is the magic of the romp. Sorcery pokes its head out, tantalizing and tempting -- the brief opening introduction, any scene with the "rude mechanicals," Philip Hays as tongue-wagging Puck; Drake Simpson as bellowing, irrepressible Bottom, the only human who can see the pixies -- but soon ducks out of sight. The uneven magic waxes and wanes.
Dream is its own unique juggernaut, rolling along with inexorable forward momentum on wheels of clouds. Some of the actors garble their words or get lost under the super-loud sound effects (another Alley lookalike), losing track of where they're going. This uncertainty is not the province of Stark Naked.
The uninteresting set -- a large canvas curtain that stretches the length of the back wall, with ropes hanging down like jungle tendrils -- does no one any favors and is put to no good use whatever. The fairies grab the tendrils by the fistful and tie them into knots, but to what effect? They are also the most heavy-footed of lightweight creatures, clomping, banging drums, whining away in the background. Only Robert Leslie Meek, as a very big Cobweb, in ballerina tutu like a hippo from Fantasia, elicits comic, otherworldly charm. Adding to the ethereal atmosphere are Andrew Vance's subtle and colorful lighting and Macy Lyne's laced bustiers for the women and fustian suits and trousers for the men.
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There are treasures to savor at Stark Naked, not least among them Shakespeare's radiant, moon-drunk poetry. The play, fairly zippy already, is neatly abridged, leaving all the magisterial set pieces intact and abuzz with life.
Galindo's Oberon is rather earthbound, neither imperious nor buoyed by air. At first he moves in a stylized slow-motion leap that ends in comic freeze-frame, but that idea is soon dropped. Lomelo's Titania is prickly as a hedgehog, but she and Galindo never conjure fairyland's steam heat that keeps them battling in their love/hate relationship. Simpson's almost improvisatory Bottom is sheer pleasure, as is Hays's crafty ZZ Top-bearded Puck. These two pros keep us off balance, a nifty trick in Shakespeare. We never know what they're going to do next. Their wily performances are required viewing and constantly smack this production into high gear.
The program cover says it all. Against a dreamy night-blue sky, Titania, lit by a full moon, leans close to an ass's head that is wondrously upside down. Either she's whispering sweet nothings in its ear or is about to kiss it. The image exudes kinky eroticism and strange make-believe. I wish there were more of both onstage. Outside, the moon had it right.
A Midsummer Night's Dream Through March 21. Stark Naked Theatre, Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street, 832‑866‑6514, starknakedtheatre.com.