Right on time for Valentine’s Day, the
Heights Players present Shakespeare’s funniest tale of love,
"A Midsummer Night’s Dream."
Based on various sources including Chaucer’s "Knight’s Tale," Plutarch’s "Lives" and Ovid’s "Metamorphoses," "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" successfully interweaves three marriages and a burlesque interlude, the tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, as presented by an inept group of actors.
The play, as written, takes place in ancient Athens. The Heights Players’ production, directed by Rob Weinstein takes place in Club Athens in New York City, and a nearby wood in the late 1920s.
Set designer Gerry Newman has created two revolving panels that transform the stage first into the posh club, then a lush forest. And Albert Walsh has dressed the amorous couples and those who wait on them in the tuxes, tails, skimpy dresses and feathered hats of the Jazz Age.
The play opens with some entertaining club dance numbers by choreographer Eileen Delgado. Then John Kelly and Krista Gillen set the tone of jaded luxury as Theseus, Duke of Athens, and his betrothed, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.
Akyiaa Wilson takes the role of Hermia and Jimmy Zazzali is her true love, Lysander. Micah Freedman plays Demetrius, the young man Hermia is supposed to marry, and Shanara Gabrielle gets the great role of Helena, the feisty young lady who has been abandoned by Demetrius in favor of Hermia, but refuses to let him go and pursues him relentlessly.
The lovesick quartet chases, chastises and charms with an earthy energy totally in keeping with Shakespeare’s bawdy tone. Their high jinks are hilarious.
But the really funny group in this production is the mechanicals: Bottom (Dan Haft), Quince (Harley Diamond), Flute (Daniel Lawrence Smith), Snug (Jason Godbey), Snout (Jason E. Lucas) and Starveling (Sam Greene). Particular acclaim must be given to Smith, who plays the fetching Thisbe, and Heft, who makes a perfect ass of himself when one of Oberon’s potions has some unexpected results.
Although, for the most part, this production is a faithful and fine interpretation of Shakespeare’s work, there are a few spots where it falls short of expectations. Susan Schnetzer is lithe and limber as Puck, but she lacks the mischievous lewdness that gives this role its pivotal position in the play. Oberon, king of the elves (Jason Unfried), and Titania, queen of the elves (Nysheva-Starr) adorn the play with a welcome dose of sensuality. But they take themselves entirely too seriously, and their interaction is never even mildly amusing, let alone downright funny.
What’s worse, Nysheva-Starr’s pronunciation leaves much to be desired. Even those of us who do not demand the King’s English in every Shakespearean production will find that more than half of her speech is not only out of synch with Shakespeare’s prose, but also beyond comprehension.
Finally, after Weinstein moves the action to the Roaring ’20s, he does not follow through with all the possibilities that move creates. Why not include the mood of the Jazz Age in more than just the opening and closing scenes? Couldn’t Puck have carried a hip flask? Couldn’t Oberon have played the sax?
The Heights Players’ production is the third "Midsummer Night’s Dream" we have seen in Brooklyn in the past two years. In August 2000, the Kings County Shakespeare Company presented a particularly licentious "Midsummer Night’s Dream," directed by Liz Shipman at St. Francis College. A year later, the LITE Company presented "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," directed by Adam Melnick, Peter Campbell and Leigh Anderson, at the Prospect Park Tennis Pavilion, where the mechanicals became off-duty park workers.
Fortunately, each of these productions has had a very individual take on Shakespeare’s work. Kings County had a very traditional theater, in Founders Hall, to work with. The LITE Company had Prospect Park on a sultry summer evening. And the Heights Players have an intimate theater in which the actors can almost become part of the audience as they watch the play within the play.
If you have not yet seen "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," this winter is a great time to make up for lost opportunities. And if you have seen one of the previous productions, the Heights Players’ version has enough originality and innovation to make it worthy of a place on your must-see list.
"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" plays through Feb. 17, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $10, students and seniors $8. The Heights Players are located at 26 Willow Place. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752.