Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant.
Alan Stanford both adapts and directs Pittsburgh’s Classic Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” While I’ve seen “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” many times, it’s always in the summer and almost invariably performed outdoors, given the play is primarily set in the forest outside of Athens. Even the title lets us know when the play is set – and by extension, when to watch it. Stanford stages his exultant vision of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in mid-winter. There’s something almost forbidden about it in the “wrong” season. It’s like sipping a Mai Tai in a snowstorm.
Shakespeare’s comedy is set in a 4-day period leading up to the wedding between Theseus, duke of Athens, and Hippolyta. They’re one of four couples in this romantic frolic. The young Lysander and Hermia want to marry, even though she’s betrothed to Demetrius, who is loved by Helena. The king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, round out the quartet of couples.
Stanford’s casting is superb. Allan Snyder plays both Theseus and Oberon, and Shammen McCune plays Hippolyta and Titania. At the play’s start, Theseus greets his bride-to-be with a hug and a verbal barrage, including the first of many sexual innuendos that remind us this is a comedy. He reminds Hippolyta with a gentle pelvic thrust that he was able to “woo thee with my sword.” While they may not yet be wed, Hippolyta is already a proficient wife in her use of nonverbal communication that Stanford metes out with royally appropriate nuance. Hippolyta expresses displeasure at a gender-biased decision from Theseus with a subtle eye-roll at him that one easily catches from the stage. Afterwards, when Theseus extends his arm, she pauses as if she might withhold her touch, then reluctantly takes Theseus’ arm. Stanford artfully steers the production to many such moments that create agency for women within the play.
Stanford finds the winter vibe with the help of costume designer Zoe Baltimore who brilliantly chooses to dress the entire cast in white. The Athenian couples all wear satiny white pajamas that signify their social status and the attending leisure that comes with it. The costumes also visually reinforce the playful sexual banter and innuendos, overlaying an eroticism that never lets us forget their bedroom destination as lovers – or soon to be lovers. Winter white carries through to local laborers who are rehearsing a play to perform at the duke’s wedding reception. Baltimore outfits them in white painter’s dungarees. The roughly textured fabric immediately draws a class distinction between the two groups. However, the laborers are portrayed by the same actors as the four young lovers, a reminder of the artifice of class as they are separated by no more than their clothes.
Domenico LaGamba’s scenic design is comprised of four hanging translucent fabric pillars. The white fabric columns work flawlessly with Baltimore’s flowing white pajamas. The columns are large enough to hide in, creating absence within presence. We see Titania curled up asleep inside a pillar while the laborers practice their play in the forest, heightening anticipation within the play. She has been charmed with a love potion that will cause her to fall in love with one of the laborers/players, Bottom (fabulously acted by Martin Giles), when she awakes.
After having been given the same love charm by the spirit Puck, both Demetrius (David Toole) and Lysander (Ryan Patrick Kearney) rip off their pajama tops in a moment of zealous male preening as they passionately vie for Helena’s affections (Zoe Abuyuan). Helena can come across as self-pitying, but Abuyuan gives her a righteous hair-tossing millennial defiance, often stalking offstage with exaggerated movements, only to turn around and give us another mouthful of her mind.
Jacob Epstein brings a youthful vibrance to Puck. He’s plucky and mischievous as he carries out various tasks at Oberon’s behest, giving them his own twist and relishing the humor of those turns. After charming Titania, he decides to give Bottom the head of an ass. Giles’ hilariously timed brays are clearly off-putting to the queen’s crew of fairies who glance soundlessly at each, sharing an open-eyed wonder and disgust. One of the play’s only flaws may be its sound engineering by Kris Buggey, which is so subtle it’s nearly as invisible as Puck himself.
Comedic tribulation turns to triumph, and everything ends properly as the four couples unite. Given the play is staged at the Fred Rogers studio at WQED, it feels like an even more appropriate ending. Come to sit, laugh and dream with your neighbors this winter at Pittsburgh’s Classic Theatre’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which plays through February 29th at the Fred Rogers Studio at WQED, 4802 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.