A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Boston Center for the Arts

Casually examining the stage of the Boston Center for the Arts’ Plaza Theatre as I take my seat for a Sunday matinee of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a Boston Theatre Works production that runs through March 3rd, I don’t realize that my first skeptical impressions of the scant scenery will be disappointingly fulfilled with every pace the production takes. Confused, hackneyed, and thoughtless come to mind first; in retrospect my instincts were generous.

The uncovered black stage floor is littered with pink plastic poppies (cute, but inescapably kitschy), two desperately impoverished trees (they have no limbs), a clunky white wooden platform, a bathtub, and a handless clock. These objects imply weakly symbolic content (though the clock admirably augments the liminal dream-space invoked throughout the text), but they do not make sense together in any context, not even postmodern fragmentation.

I can’t decide if director Daniel Elihu Kramer wants to present a minimalist ethos but feels guilty about producing Shakespeare without scenery, or if he’s just lazy and undisciplined. In either case, the result is an unsatisfying performance that lacks conviction and a sense of artistic unity on every level.

A publicly funded organization like Boston Theatre Works has to address a host of competing budget concerns, so it’s understandable when a director caves to double-casting, especially in a script so well suited to a composite cast. In truth, the formal development of Shakespeare’s story and the complex of foils contained within the dramatis personae can be enhanced if the actors playing parallel roles articulate this relationship with subtlety and poise. Unfortunately, these actors are not up to the task, and the mental and logistical demands of bearing so many roles breaks many of their performances.

The actors turn their two characters into opposed expressions of a single emotion or character trait—Theseus is all sarcasm while Titania (more on this odd coupling in a moment) is strait sass, Demetrius is scornful while Francis Flute yearns for approval, and Lysander is ebullient while Peter Quince wears glasses.

The exception to the rule-of-dichotomy is Puck and Starveling, played by Ben Lambert, who is either a savvy homosexual rights activist or the worst actor I’ve ever seen. Like most of his collaborators, Ben has an abrasive stage dynamic that works about as well as a light switch—he adeptly juxtaposes loud, mischievous, and gay with quiet, mischievous, and gay. (Most alarmingly, neither feels genuine.)

Bottom is loud, boorish, and everything else you would expect from a caricatured performance of his character. Like many characters from Shakespeare’s most famous works, Bottom has unfortunately developed an archetypal performance mode, and Robert Pemberton turns the volume of convention all the way up to eleven.

While Elizabeth Hayes and Angie Jepson flounder as Snout and Snug, their portrayals of Helena and Hermia are incontrovertibly the best acting in the entire production. Helena handles her rejection with charismatically enchanting desperation, and her distress feels naturally frantic and neurosis-inducing, especially when she finds both Demetrius and Lysander fawning over her. Similarly, Hermia shows intimations of emotional complexity when Lysander abandons her in the woods, visibly and convincingly wrenching as she attempts to reconcile her steadfast belief in their love with his proclamations of hatred.

Timothy John Smith and Paula Plum present inoffensively bland iterations of the two royal couples, gender-bending for the roles of Titania and Oberon. Again, there doesn’t seem to be a tangible reason for this decision other than its cheap novelty (the actors would have been better suited to their natural second parts), and it subverts both the opportunity to examine compellingly the relationship between parallel characters through a single actor and the homoerotic overtones of Oberon’s relationship with Puck.

Despite this, Lambert—whose (tastelessly) visible rhinestone underwear may or may not have been part of his costume—continues to be more interested in developing his tactless portrayal of Puck’s sexuality than investigating the nuances of the mischief-maker’s fantastically understated personality.

Like the scenery, there is no apparent forethought motivating the inane costuming. High-quality art demands deliberation, unless the point is to be deliberately arbitrary. (It isn’t.) The Athenians wear a mix of black overcoats and dinner jackets, the fairies drape themselves in gaudy bathrobes, and the town craftsmen appear in galoshes and mechanic’s jackets adorned with personalized nametags. (Aside: while the oblique allusion to Puck calling them “rude mechanicals” is appreciated, it hardly validates costumes that are out of place and ugly.) In all likelihood, the costumes were chosen for their quick interchangeability between scenes (a pitfall of double-casting) and cost-effectiveness, neither of which excuses metaphorical emptiness and visual offensiveness.

Director Kramer also seems to have forgotten how Shakespeare’s (brilliant) script thrives on the language humor, peppering each scene with clunky, uncomfortable, and occasionally crass bits of slapstick and action-driven comedy. (Flute, while rehearsing lines for Pyramus and Thisbe, stores the script in the front of his trousers.)

A brief word of reprieve—the actors all did a commendable job handling the iambic pentameter, generally metering their speech with balanced deference to Shakespearean rhythm and clear coherence tempered for the modern audience. While the dreaded “Shakespearean Brogue” is narrowly avoided, the trifling grace of their pronunciation is often undercut by gratuitous physical comedy or casual asides inserted throughout the text.

In keeping with Shakespeare’s M.O., the production’s tragedy peaks with the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. Every production flaw from poor costuming to banal humor or general incoherence shines with new glory while the cast trolls for cheap laughs and crashes towards the finish line with the grace of a pregnant ox. It’s enough to make you wish the Duke had taken his aide’s advice and gone straight to bed.

Unlike Puck, I can offer no apologies on behalf of this production. If my shadow has offended, learn to act; and all is mended.