LOOK WITH THE EYES AS WELL Fenix's gleeful casting and costuming. CREDIT WHITNEY SMITH
A Midsummer Night's Dream is arguably the Bard's sultriest, silliest, and most gossamer comedy. As such, of course, it is also among the most oft-produced al fresco summer offerings in the whole canon. But if you believe yourself over-sated on its ethereal and mortal foibles; if you fear you have guffawed all you can guffaw at its Rude Mechanicals; if you think you might just pass on yet one more outdoor production of the old summer stand-by — I strongly recommend that you think again: The Midsummer being lavished upon lounging park-goers this season at the Deering Oaks wading pool is uncommonly, gloriously fresh. By that I laud both the cheekiness and the vitality of this exquisitely cast and beautifully situated production of the Fenix Theatre Co., under the deliciously smart direction of Peter Brown.
As with past Fenix productions, this Midsummer departs gleefully from the classical: Fairies are glammed up in fluorescent short-shorts, rave wings, and lots of glitter and polka dots; their ethereal serenades campily channel the Eurythmics and Gary Wright. The infamous Puck (Ian Carlsen, whose image was already in the dictionary next to "puckish") wears pink and black striped arm warmers, pink-rimmed sunglasses, and a loincloth, and when he calls out to the fairies to "Frolic," the imperative is steeped in libido.
But amping up and modernizing the sexy debauchery of Midsummer is hardly an innovation. What does shake things up, and to exhilarating effect, is Brown's decision to make Hippolyta and Theseus (the mortal royals) the mere playtime alter-egos of, respectively, fairy queen and king Titania and Oberon (Kathleen Kimball and Paul Drinan, perfectly cast with their majestic sexuality, and done up fabulously — Kimball in glittering pink chiffon and purple Spandex; Drinan in a purple fishnet shirt). The supernaturals don crowns to play at being human, then clap hands to revert to their "real" life squabbles. Similar doublings, involving Puck and the Rude Mechanicals, are equally invigorating. Brown's choice compresses the key cast to only eight players, giving the show an intimate cohesion, and also lending the play's themes of illusion and trickery even more concentric resonance.
And oh, is the trickery sublime — witty, gritty, and astonishingly physical. Here, the romantic knot-work of Lysander (Brian Chamberlain), Hermia (Ariel Francoeur), Demetrius (Seth Rigoletti), and Helena (Liz Chambers) entangles them bodily as well as emotionally, as lovers crawl and wallow through each other's legs, cling to torsos with all four limbs, and entwine in unabashed concupiscence. Under the enthusiastic direction of fight directors Sally Wood and Ned Donovan, Athenians are pinned, punched, slapped, thrown against, and made to tumble down the hill (which acts as a kind of three-dimensional backdrop). The verisimilitude and velocity are such that I heard genuine gasps arise from the house blankets.
And the show's physicality is but one element of its spectacular "low" humor (the excellence of its "high" verbal wit, performed by these accomplished local actors, is a given). There are also sex gags — genitals are abused, feels copped, fellatio attempted — and plain old over-the-top silliness, which is harder to pull off than it looks, and which the Fenix cast takes on with gorgeous abandon. I'm loath to spoil the myriad little delights of both low and high wit — and there are many, many unexpected ones — so suffice it to note Lisa Muller-Jones's sumptuously hilarious egoism as Bottom; Chambers's inspired depravity in Helena's "I am your spaniel" bit; and Brian Chamberlain's indescribable death scene as Thisby — during that last one, I literally laughed until I couldn't breathe.
Now that, my friends, is my idea of summer refreshment, in the truest and most sundry senses of the word.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM | by William Shakespeare | Directed by Peter Brown | Produced by the Fenix Theatre Co., in collaboration with River Arts | at the Deering Oaks Park Wading Pool | Wednesday through Saturday through August 15 @ 6 pm | Admission is free, but do bring a little something to throw in their box