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Bristol Old Vic's 'Midsummer'

Staging Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is tricky principally because of the fairy scenes. How do you represent the liminal nature of the play, in which characters cross between worlds? Benjamin Britten, in his operatic version, could do it with music, but productions of the play have to do it visually. The staging by the company from the Bristol Old Vic and the Handspring Puppet Company, who created the most natural interaction of human and life-size puppets in Warhorse, uses puppetry. It was shown during the Kennedy Center's World Stages festival, where I saw it on Saturday night, in the Eisenhower Theater.

The word puppetry may give a too grand sense of what this production does. The world of the fairies is made of rather crude materials, with the puppeteers using planks to give a sense of the forest breathing and moving around the lovers or to evoke the wings and magical aura of Titania, Queen of the Fairies. The actors playing Hippolyta and Theseus are shown like puppeteers in a workshop, and they lift masks in the air when they take on the personae of Titania and Oberon, the latter carrying an enormous mechanical arm and hand, with ominous music and amplification of their voices to help the illusion. Puck is voiced and brought to life by three puppeteers, a sort of dog-like creature made of a coffee-pot for a head, a wicker basket for a body, and various utensils for his limbs. The way the production works, as directed by Tom Morris, all of the actors have to excel in acting, puppetry, and singing (music by Dave Price), as they do all of these, shifting seamlessly from one role to the other as the evening proceeds.

Other Articles:

Benjamin Tomchik, The Kennedy Center's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM is an Innovative Retelling of a Timeless Classic (Broadway World, March 23)

Nelson Pressley, Puppets make ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ magical at Kennedy Center World Stages fest (Washington Post, March 22)

Joel Brown, Puppets in Shakespeare’s fairyland? Imagine that. (Boston Globe, February 28)
It is a visually plain production in terms of materials, but rich in its sense of fantasy and with plenty of laughs (designed by Vicki Mortimer, lighting by Philip Gladwell, sound by Christopher Shutt). Saskia Portway (Hippolyta/Titania) and David Ricardo-Pearce (Theseus/Oberon) were a fiercely battling couple, and one was really not sure until the end of the play that the noble marriage would be accomplished. The quartet of lovers was goofy and gangly as a bunch of adolescents, with a particularly funny exchange between Hermia (Akiya Henry) and Helena (Naomi Cranston) on the touchy subject of the former's lack of stature. The antics of the Rude Mechanicals troupe were also quite good, led by the oversized, Greek-tinged rodomontades of Miltos Yerolemou's Bottom and the hilariously incomprehensible utterances of Saikat Ahamed's Snug. The transformation of Bottom into the Ass was especially bizarre, involving a sort of carriage that Yerolemou lay upon and wheeled himself around on, which literally inverted the actor, making his ass into his head and vice-versa. The troupe's performance of the The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe was riotously bad, a ramshackle conclusion to an entertaining evening.

The World Stages Festival concludes this week, at the Kennedy Center.

Previously at the World Stages Festival:
Marguerite Duras, Savannah Bay (Théâtre de l'Atelier)
Peter Brook, The Suit (Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord)
Penny Plain (Ronnie Burkett Theater of Marionettes)
La Muerte / Incendios (La Mafia Teatro)
Harmsaga (National Theater of Iceland)

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