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'Midsummer Night's Dream' takes on darker hue

News Arts Critic

Published:July 31, 2012, 2:00 AM

A deep summer spell has descended on a small corner of Delaware Park, where a spirited production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" opened Friday night after rain forced the cancellation of its original opening Thursday.

Kyle LoConti's keen and clean production of this beloved comedy - the fourth in the company's 37-year history - took on a slightly more serious tone than fans of the play might be used to. But the sense of foreboding and the implied dark undercurrent that seemed to motivate the members of Shakespeare's fairy realm served as a fine counterpoint to the innocent frivolity and outright slapstick in which its mere mortal characters engage.

Thursday night, as angry storm clouds gathered above the park, the entrance of the fairy king Oberon (Adriano Gatto) was met with rolling thunder - one of those glorious moments in outdoor Shakespeare in which it was impossible to tell whether the sound was the work of nature or of Katie Menke, the company's gifted sound designer.

That it was the latter speaks to LoConti's subtly subversive approach to the play, which other directors might have approached with a lighthearted, Judd Apatow-esque sensibility. In this production, Oberon's feud with the fairy queen Titania (Morgan Chard) over a changeling boy and his use of punk-rock manservant Puck (Chicago-based actor Chad Fess) plays out in ominous chords. Oberon and Puck's true motivation is never quite spelled out, but one gets the sense from watching Fess slink across the stage that whatever drives him and his master is not entirely savory.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream," whose language and events have filtered into any number of films, books, operas, ballets and poems, follows three separate groups whose exploits eventually lead them to intersect: a group of young Athenians in various states of love and lust; a bumbling group of amateur actors; and the mischievous and jealous spirits of the fairy world.

LoConti has transposed the action of the play from the woods near Athens to British Honduras in the 1920s, with excellent costumes by Dixon Reynolds making the distinction among these three groups crystal-clear. The Athenians are dressed as British colonists, the amateur players as members of the indigenous culture and the spirits as mystical, Mayan royalty. Anyone with knowledge of the rituals of ancient Mayan royalty might have questions about Oberon's intentions - as it seems clear LoConti is nudging the audience to have.

But there's no need to read that deeply into things. Merely on a surface level, this production is a riot, with excellent comic performances from Emily Hin as Hermia, Kevin Donahue as Lysander, Mary Ryan as Helena, and especially, Jeffrey Coyle as Bottom, the actor-turned-ass whose character is designed to steal every scene in which he appears.

Coyle, who even in serious roles tends to leave no piece of scenery behind without teeth marks, is perfect for the character. His performance is a stew of influences, from commedia dell'arte to Christopher Walken and back again, and his endless death scene in the story's play-within-a-play is one highlight of physical comedy among many.

Hin's Hermia is lovely, adding just enough contemporary touches and inflections to clue us in to her character's frustration without taking us too far out of the play's setting. Ryan, as Helena, struck me at first as overenthusiastic, but her quirky and self-conscious approach grew more and more endearing as the play went on. In Fess' hands, the mohawk-wearing Puck was not just mischievous but menacing, a cackling, scampering sprite you would absolutely not like to encounter on a moonlit night in the forest.

In the end, LoConti's production succeeds because it works so well on two distinct levels: as a straight-up comedy, full of enchantment and frivolity; and, for those who dare to peer a little bit deeper, as a darker rumination interrupted by bright flashes of humor.