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In his welcoming remarks on opening night, PlayMakers' artistic director Joseph Haj used the word "fresh" to describe the production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream that we were about to see in the Paul Green Theater. And so it proved. The comedy of love, which everyone thinks he or she knows, yielded up unsuspected nuances with this strong cast directed by Shana Cooper. It's a charming production, reveling in the silly set-ups, glorying in the language, emphasizing the play's ideas – about dream and imagination, love and enchantment – and tender in the treatment of every character.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is playing in rotating rep with the musical Into the Woods, which means that the royals and aristocrats, the working people, and the fairies act out their crisscrossed stories on the same stage as the fairytale characters of the other play. This doubling up in the space makes particular demands on the scenic designers, who've met the challenge this time with one very complex set (Into the Woods) and one by Marion Williams that basically slipcovers the first in diaphanous white and wraps its trees à la Christo. Josh Epstein's glowing lighting maximized the other-worldly aspect thus created. It is our imaginations that must create the court and workroom and bower and the swirling mists in the dark woods where thanks to fairies' potent flower juice, the four young human lovers play hide and seek, finding themselves eventually in the correct matched pairs.
Allison Altman gave an outstanding performance as Helena, the poor besotted girl chasing after Demetrius – who is supposed to marry her best friend Hermia – but she's in love with Lysander – and then the fairies steal in to confuse things more. Altman gives Helena more pride and substance than she's sometimes allowed, and her portrayal has a lot to do with whether the play comes off as an entertainment or something more. Arielle Yoder was delightful as beauteous Hermia, overly sought-after but yet unspoiled; and William Hughes and Schuyler Scott Mastain were both dynamic as the young swains Demetrius and Lysander. All four actors are graduate students in the Professional Actor Training Program at UNC.
The head of that program, Ray Dooley, is Puck. I mean, he plays Puck. But in a way, it seems the role reveals the man – a man who is an actor. Puck is the familiar of Oberon, the fairy king parallel to Theseus the Duke in the "real" world. Puck sets up scenes and instigates actions at the will of Oberon (the director), and (like an actor) with his spells enchants. I had been used to thinking of Puck as young, boyish, careless, but Dooley, no longer boyish, gives us Puck as ageless, instead. This Puck knows something of contrition – and a lot about compassion.
Zachary Fine was fabulous as Oberon, prancing around (good choreography throughout by Erika Chong Shuch) and plotting tricks on the humans and on his queen Titania, played with zest by Lisa Birnbaum. The same pair had almost as much fun in their human personae of Theseus and Hippolyta.
The play within the play – a piece written and bumbled through by the "rude mechanicals" in honor of the Duke's wedding to Hippolyta is treated with knowing tenderness by director Cooper and the players. With comic asperity Kathryn Hunter-Williams plays Peter Quince, the workingperson/writer/director/producer trying to quell the fears and control the imaginative outbursts of his little company of would-be thespians. Julie Fishell won the plum role of Nick Bottom, and at times she's perfectly funny and ridiculous… but at other times the cross-gender casting seemed a little awkward and unsatisfactory. However, all honor to her for going for it, and all gratitude to PlayMakers for the latitude it gives its artists and audiences for exploring the human condition through the magic of theatre.
PlayMakers is not doing a special holiday show this year. Instead, this winning production of A Midsummer Night's Dream runs through Dec. 7 on an irregular rotation with Into the Woods. See the sidebar for details, and be sure to check the calendar if you need to go on a particular day of the week.