I doubt I’ve ever heard as much laughing at a Shakespeare play as I did at “A Midwinter Night’s Dream,” currently being presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison. And these weren’t polite little laughs. They were big guffaws, in response to bold, perfectly executed physical comedy. I can’t recommend seeing this production, which will run through the end of the year, strongly enough.
Those aren’t typos in the headline and the first paragraph, by the way. Yes, it’s a “Midwinter” night’s dream, not a “Midsummer” night’s dream. The play has been “re-seasoned” by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte and Joseph Discher, so that its enchanted forest becomes a winter wonderland; warring characters pelt each other with snowballs; and the summer references in the text become winter references. For example, the line “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” becomes “I know a bank where the winter wind sighs.” STNJ debuted this new take in 2002, and is now returning to it for the first time since then.
The Fairies, originally a foursome named Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed, are now an octet with the names of Flake, Snowpea, Sugarplum, Snowball, Frostbite, Mistletoe, Holly and Blizzard. And familiar melodies from beloved holiday songs are heard at various times.
Rest assured, while the re-seasoning gives set designer Brian Ruggaber and costume designer Yao Chen an opportunity to give the play a fresh, frosty look (just check out the photos above), the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry and the crazy twists of his most wildly imaginative story remain intact.
A cast of 13 fills all the parts in the play, which has four overlapping plots; every actor except David Foubert, who plays the conceited (and oblivious to his own lack of talent) thespian Nick Bottom, takes on two roles. There are a lot of quick costume changes in the course of the two acts, and most of the actors have to look totally different for their two parts; it must be an absolute madhouse backstage, but onstage, everything went smoothly.
René Thornton Jr. and Jessica Ires Morris play Shakespeare’s two royal couples: the soon-to-be-married, deeply-in-love Theseus and Hippolyta, and the unhappily wedded King and Queen of the Fairies, Oberon and Titania.
Demetrius (Christian Frost) is in love with Hermia (Emily S. Chang), but Hermia is in love with Lysander (Isaac Hickox-Young), and Helena (Fiona Robberson) is in unrequited love with Demetrius. Hermia’s father Egeus (Eric Hoffmann) asks Theseus to force Hermia to marry Demetrius.
Hermia and Lysander flee to the frozen forest, followed by Demetrius and Helena. Chaos ensues when the mischievous fairy Puck (Billie Wyatt) makes Lysander and Demetrius both fall in love with Helena.
Meanwhile, a group of bumbling actors, including Bottom, prepare a play, “Pyramus and Thisbe,” to perform to celebrate the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Puck turns Bottom’s head into a donkey’s head, and then makes Titania fall in love with him.
Later, with Bottom back to normal, Oberon and Titania reconciled and the young lovers happily paired off with Theseus’ blessing (Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius), the actors perform their play in a riotously inept manner.
Puck gives the play’s final speech, speaking directly to the audience and describing all that had gone before as a dream:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
This inspired production ends the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2023 season, and serves as a fitting finale for Monte, who is stepping down from her position of artistic director after more than three decades. But it also augurs well for the institution’s future, as it was directed by Brian B. Crowe, who is currently STNJ’s director of education (and has directed many plays at the theater, over the last 20-plus years), and will take over as artistic director next year.
In an essay titled “Some Final Thoughts and Words of Thanks” in the show’s program, Monte concludes by promising “I will still be around in the future, here and there,” and says, regarding Crowe, that “I know (he) will continue to protect and enhance this extra-extraordinary place I call home.”
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents “A Midwinter Night’s Dream” at its F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University in Madison, through Dec. 31. Visit shakespearenj.org.
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