Shakespeare Festival weaves a dark 'Dream' that awakens delight

August 05, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

In staging "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Cloisters Amphitheater as its inaugural production, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival has chosen the Shakespearean play best suited to being performed outdoors on a summer night. And the fledgling theater company is taking full advantage of its open-air venue -- on the evening I attended, even a brief rain shower failed to interrupt the action on stage.

But above and beyond the lovely, appropriate setting, the most interesting aspect of this solid production is that it isn't merely a light romp in the woods, as the play is often interpreted.

Instead of opening with a courtly scene in which Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, happily announce their forthcoming marriage, director Geoffrey Hitch begins with a violent battle scene. With Theseus' soldiers

restraining Mary Carole Curran's wildly protesting Hippolyta, the nuptial announcement made by Stanton Davis' Theseus takes the form of a threat.

This dark context continues when Egeus (J. E. Dockery) drags his daughter Hermia (a spirited Andrea Stevens) in by the scruff of her neck. Hurling her to the ground, he rails against the disobedience she has shown by falling in love with Lysander (Reginald Davis) and refusing to wed Demetrius (John C. Hansen), whom Egeus prefers.

In addition to the royals and the young people, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" includes a third category of lovers -- the Fairy King and Queen, Oberon (John L. Silvers) and Titania (Katherine Carlson). The initially combative tone of Hitch's staging also makes sense here, since this couple spends most of the play at odds over the custody of a changeling child.

Silvers' Oberon is the production's strongest portrayal, suggesting evil from his graceful, snakelike movements to his menacing appearance -- he wears huge black feathered wings and his head is shaved except for a few spirals of dark hair.

Despite Oberon's example, the sinister veil that has shrouded the other lovers begins to lift when the fairies appear. It disappears completely in the slapstick scenes featuring the script's fourth level of characters -- the tradesmen, or mechanicals, who meet to rehearse the play-within-a-play they will perform at Theseus' wedding.

Perhaps Hitch felt a sense of menace was inappropriate for the comic mechanicals. But surely menace can be found in the wicked spell cast on Bottom, the weaver, who unknowingly winds up sporting the head of an ass. Indeed, Bottom's changed appearance terrifies his cronies. David Dossey, however, plays him as the same lovable creature as he is traditionally portrayed.

Admittedly, even a more consistently dark interpretation of this romantic comedy would have to lighten up in the end. This one gives up the ghost a bit early, but it's an intriguing attempt, and the talented cast does a delightful -- if less inspired -- job with the play's other, more conventional, pleasures.

The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival originally announced two plays for its inaugural season, but had to eliminate one due to the expense of making the theater handicapped-accessible. Smaller may be a wiser way to start, in any event, and the realization of this "Dream" is an auspicious debut for the area's newest experiment in al fresco Shakespeare.

"Midsummer Night's Dream"

Where: Cloisters Amphitheater, 10440 Falls Road

When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Aug. 14

Tickets: $13.50

Call: (410) 752-2812

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