In Athens, every lover is unhappy: as one of them remarks, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
That’s the state of things as Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” starts. The Sacramento Theatre Company debuted its version of the classic comedy last week; shows run until March 17. The lively production shows The Bard’s comedic work can still make audiences roll with laughter more than 400 years after the show was originally penned.
The local production adds another layer to a tale that is already couched in a dream. To emphasize this, the director added an unusual prologue with a young boy in bed reading a book. The boy is surrounded and kidnapped by fairies to his own dream: the play itself. Everyone has dreams, and generally we discount and forget them the next morning. Forget Freud. Shakespeare offers a play couched in a dream. There’s also a play within a play, for added complexity.
The midsummer night begins in the court at Athens with a distant future queen, Hippolyta, dour and unsmiling as if she had just discovered rotten almonds in her baklava, staged 15 feet away from her intended spouse, Theseus. Theseus is soon confronted with a marital dilemma posed by Hermia and her father’s disagreement. Other lovers, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena are entangled in the romantic conflicts.
But soon the play moves from the still and sterile court to the enchanted nightwood near Athens. In echo of the Athenian daylight world we have the world of the Fairy King, Oberon, and Queen Titania — significantly and suggestively played by the same actor (Ben Muller) and actress (Gail Dartez) portraying Theseus and Hippolyta.
Opposing these dual aristocratic worlds is a troupe of amateur rustics with plebeian jobs working on a play for Theseus’s wedding. Their comic nature is immediately suggested by their pun-rich names — Bottom, Snout, Starveling and Snug. They speak prose, in contrast to the rhyming and iambic pentameter of the aristocrats.
The forest and the night express the dream world: freed from rational bonds of coherence and civility and severity. Here Oberon sends his playful henchman Puck, outfitted as a half-naked satyr, to drug lovers with psychoactive flowers and change Bottom into an ass.
The Athenian lovers quickly tire, fall asleep, and are drugged to fall in love with the wrong people. But their protestations of new love are as complex and elaborate and ultimately unconvincing as their previous, presumably authentic ones. Drugged Lysander now abandons Hermia and falls in love with Helena. Lysander occasionally turns aside to inhale an asthma inhaler, a gesture as creative and anachronistic as Hippolyta’s earlier fist pump.
Helena (Carissa Meagher) relies on her forceful presentation of a sophisticated response to the romantic shenanigans of the males she’s encountering (Lysander, Demetrius: “Dumb-metrius,” she calls him) and offers articulate and pugnacious commentary as well as comical gymnastic assault.
Her body language and Shakespearean rhetorical hyperbole as much as say, “Who can believe either of these arrogant, obnoxious, romantic idiots, who several hours ago were spouting the opposite nonsense?”
This antic phase of the play is really enjoyable for modern audiences, because of the barriers created by the subtlety, intricacy and often archaic difficulty of Shakespeare’s poetry. But the antic efforts of Lysander (Dan Fagan) and Demetrius (Darek Riley): one does pushups, the other pedals an imaginary stationary bike to indicate masculine superiority. To this is added their wordplay and the comedy of the romantic overreach becomes clear.
The young lovers self-consciously and mockingly exaggerate words like “death” (pronounced “De-Eth”) and get us all to question how earnest any romantic proposal or elegant rhetoric may be. Also adding to the overall comic effect are players like Puck (Ian Hopps), with his sly off-color visual humor, antics and capering about the stage. The clever gesture makes the Shakespearean discourse accessible.
Everything ends happily enough. The play is much like a lot of modern romantic film comedy, where once you tune in to the genre, you know the plot outline.
It’s also a very funny production because Shakespeare knew how to provide comic relief. When at the wedding the rustics perform a pastiche of the mythic love tragedy “Pyramus and Thisbe,” everything goes wrong in a comic crescendo of slapstick one-upsmanship by the cast. The opening-night audience loved it, and regularly burst into laughter and applause. Love may not be smooth but it can certainly be entertaining.
If You Go
“Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, 1419 H Street
When: Wednesdays through Sundays until March 17
Prices: $20 to $38
Tickets: At the box office and online at tickets.sactheatre.org.