Shotgun Players' 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' - fairies, romance, and a memorable Bottom

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday March 26, 2024
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Veronica Renner (back) as Oberon, Jamin Jollo as Puck (front) in Shotgun Players' 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'<br>(photo: Ben Krantz)
Veronica Renner (back) as Oberon, Jamin Jollo as Puck (front) in Shotgun Players' 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
(photo: Ben Krantz)

You can call it a romance. You can call it a comedy. But there's probably no better way to describe Shotgun Players' new production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" than to just call it a Play.

Mounted with whirligig energy by director William Thomas Hodgson, this is as playful a take on Shakespeare as Bay Area stages have seen in several seasons. It's loose and goofy and genuinely joyful, set in a groovy grove of tree stump platforms that would make Sid and Marty Krofft proud (Sarah Phykitt is the scenic designer).

Sure, you'll get your fix of Bardic beauty here, but the limber, nimble cast of eleven — seven of whom play multiple roles — manages to deliver all the poetry without a whiff of pedantry. (Well, not all the poetry. Some judicious, largely inconsequential trims keep this iteration's run time to just over two spritely hours).

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is one of the most frequently produced of Shakespeare's works. Among the reasons for this is surely the sheer number of goings-on it's got going on.

The script's busy quintet of interlocking plots is punctuated by musical interludes and broad comic schtick that add layers of nuance (if you're parsing the Art of it all) but also goose its pure entertainment value.

Oscar Woodrow Harper III as Bottom Transformed and Radhika Rao as Titania in Shotgun Players' 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'  

Abundant fun
This production leans into Midsummer's muchness. There's pre-show tomfoolery as the audience takes its seats, with cast members clowning downstage and wandering the aisles to joke, flirt and serenade.

The intermission raffle, a Shotgun tradition, here feels part-and-parcel with the main attraction, one more lark in the evening's exaltation.

The play's braided narratives are made relatively easy to follow, even if you're uneasy with Elizabethan English (Kudos to costume designer Madeline Berger and fellow Abigail Cregor for helpfully telegraphing which character an actor is playing at any given moment).

Should you get lost in the woods or dizzily disoriented like Shakespeare's star-crossed couples do, there's no need to plotz from the tangle of plots. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy this production's moment-to-moment merriment.

Celeste Kamiya as Hermia (left) and Rolanda D. Bell as Helena (right) in Shotgun Players' 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'  

Comedic star turns
Oscar Woodrow Harper III earns big laughs as a top-notch Bottom. Playing the workmanly would-be thespian who gets hexed with the head of a donkey by Puck (Jamin Jollo, in a Pilobolus-meets-Alice Cooper turn), Harper's in full "Hee Haw" mode even before he gets turned into an ass, braying his lines in a Southern-fried drawl that somehow also incorporates a British accent.

Susannah Martin makes Peter Quince, leader of Bottom's drama troupe, an irresistible dimwit. Countering her sharp features and the heavy black eyeglasses out of an Alison Bechdel cartoon, she exudes uncomplicated happiness as she plonks a nursery xylophone, hums through a kazoo, and leads along her loyal pup (a toddler's pull toy).

Impish Kevin Rebultan alchemizes a trio of minor roles into comedy gold with off-kilter line readings and facial expressions that never stop surprising. As gal pals Helena and Hermia, Rolanda D. Bell and Celeste Kamiya turn dialogue into music with the lovely counterpoint of their voices. Fenner Merlick as Demitrius, and Veronica Renner as Theseus, fill the stage with swashbuckling self-possessed androgyny.

Oscar Woodrow Harper III, Susannah Martin, Matt Standley and Kevin Rebultan in Shotgun Players' 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'  

A lucid dream
Director Hodgson pulls everything together in a gossamer net, creating an overall tonal coherence while allowing each performer to showcase their own idiosyncrasies. It's a deceptively difficult feat. There's a sense of freedom throughout the production, but no hint of chaos.

At two moments toward the performance's end, this all-encompassing harmony fully transcends the stage and envelops the audience.

The first is a subtle, near-hallucinogenic lighting transition that evokes the break of dawn, practically bypassing the eyes to go straight to the emotions (The lighting design is by Stephanie Anne Johnson).

Soon after comes the second, as the full cast sings in unison, not belting, but embracing; holding us all together in a most pleasant play-full dream.

'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' extended through April 27. $20-$40. Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. (510) 841-6500.

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