This Is Not Your Mother’s Shakespeare

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Time to dance and rejoice in Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pictured l to r: Bryan Barbarin (Demetrius), John-Alexander Sakelos (Peter Quince), Renea S. Brown (Helena), and John Floyd (Flute, here dressed as Thisbe). Photo: Brittany Diliberto.

This month, Shakespeare comes to the majestic National Building Museum with a long-awaited Folger Theatre production in The Playhouse, erected among the massive pillars of the Great Hall. After a nearly three-year delay imposed by the pandemic, this rendition of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” seems to have awakened from a transformative dream, just like the characters in the play itself. In director Victor Malana Maog’s reimagining, the play’s lengthy monologues give way to lively antics to create theater with universal appeal.

“For the Folger and the National Building Museum, this is a shared invitation for people of all ages and experiences to uncover the magic of theater …” says Folger Theatre Artistic Director Karen Ann Daniels. “The Playhouse permits us to dream, to play, and rediscover the joy of gathering.” The result: A bedazzling romp, styled to bring cheers from a new generation of theater-goers and perhaps a twinge of dismay from a dwindling number of classical theater purists.

Oberon (Rotimi Agbabiaka), king of the fairies, falls for Bottom (Jacob Ming-Trent), here, transformed as an ass, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Brit Herring and Sabrina Lynne Sawyer also pictured as fairies of the forest.) Photo: Brittany Diliberto.

I count myself among the second group. Like the old man telling his spoiled grandchildren about walking three miles to school in the snow (and we liked it!), I suffered for my love of Shakespeare. Beginning as a nonplussed 8-year-old struggling to comprehend A Midsummer Night’s Dream at an open-air staging in New Jersey, I would later ritualistically read every Shakespeare play before attending a performance, in hopes of enjoying the acting instead of laboring to figure out what the heck was going on. 

Back in the last century, the only concessions to making Shakespeare “accessible” to fresh audiences were trimming a scene or two and choosing modern dress so that people might make helpful associations between the play’s themes and the fascism of Nazi Germany or the joyful abandon of the Roaring Twenties. No more. Maog’s vibrant production meets the audience far more than halfway, dispensing with about half of the text and even the intermission to present 90 minutes of evocative music, inventive choreography, and a heavy dose of high jinks. 

While the audience gathers, original music by Brandon Wolcott sets the tone, filling the hall with playful jazz interwoven with familiar strains of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Lord of the Dance” before introducing snippets of “Fever” as the passion-fueled plot unfolds. The music complements scenic designer Tony Cisek’s palatial set, framed by the building’s towering columns looming behind it. Cisek trades the play’s time-honored leafy forest props (so often afforded by real trees in outdoor performances) for a single magnificent star above, paired with lighting designer Yael Lubetzky’s deep blue illuminations and twinkling bulbs to evoke the enchanted night. 

 Danaya Esperanza’s able Puck brings the stage to life, animating the troupe of laborers who are producing a play within the play to celebrate the duke’s marriage. Chief among them is the egotistical Bottom, portrayed with gusto by Jacob Ming-Trent. Bouncing around the stage in a Hawaiian shirt and matching shorts, he embellishes the role with countless clever schticks and jokes that seem effortlessly ad-libbed. He takes the humor to a whole new level when, thanks to Puck’s magic fairy dust, Bottom suddenly bears the head of an ass and the duke falls hopelessly in love with him.

Queen Hippolyta (Nubia M. Monks) and Theseus, the duke (Rotimi Agbabiaka) preside over the play, projecting their deep sexual tension and a profound rivalry. In a charming turnabout, it’s Hippolyta who has the upper hand, with Puck as her minion, and Monk’s disdain is the perfect foil to Agbabiaka’s flamboyant swagger. Their synergy is heightened by brilliant costumes, designed by Olivera Gagic in complementary hues of fuchsia and chartreuse. For their alternate roles as the fairy queen and king, Titania and Oberon, the actors strike an even more commanding presence, swapping sophisticated city wear for extravagant gowns, platform shoes, and massive trains that span the entire stage. 

The cast of Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Brittany Diliberto.

Four energetic actors round out the cast as the young lovers Hermia (Lilli Hokama), the object of affection for both Lysander (Hunter Ringsmith) and Demetrius (Bryan Barbarin) — who has recently dumped the hapless Helena (Renea S. Brown). All four build to a crescendo of confusion and rage amid their frenzied romantic pursuits, culminating in impressive athletic feats and a bit of stage combat. Then, emerging from their exhausting spell, they perform an interpretive dance by choreographer Alexandra Beller to recap the night’s misadventures.

The play’s final treat is the long-awaited tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, presented by Bottom and his friends at the nuptials of the play’s three couples. It’s one more chance to flex their comic muscles, and while Ming-Trent once again steals the show, John Floyd emerges as a worthy match. The instant he dons a red wig and a dress, he metamorphosizes from the understated Flute into the effervescent Thisbe. From his desperate attempts at smooching with Bottom to his final demise from a self-inflicted stab of his sword, Floyd is a melodramatic delight.

Through all of the production’s creative embellishments, updates, and even cuts, the essential premise of this beloved play shines through: Love, like theater, involves an unpredictable leap of faith. The key is embracing the experience with an open heart and mind. 

The National Building Museum and the Folger Shakespeare Library, in association with the University of South Carolina, are partnering to present The Playhouse through August 28. For tickets and events, visit www.folger.edu/events/midsummer-nights-dream-2022.