By William Shakespeare
Directed by Steven Maler
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company
Copley Square, Boston Closed

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's "Midsummer Night's Dream" is the first production of director Steven Maler's project to bring free outdoor summer Shakespeare to downtown Boston. Upwards of a thousand people showed up with blankets and lawn chairs to attend opening night, many of them with toddlers in tow. Those with tickets were assured of a place within the enclosure closest to the stage, while the rest sprawled on the park grass, or perched on steps, walls, and benches.

As the good natured crowd gathered beneath the tower of Richardson's magnificent Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square, Boston looked indeed like a hub of civilization. The Copley fountain was boarded over to make a impromptu stage, its twin obelisks serving to define the performance space and anchor Susan Zeeman Rogers' gauzy scenery. Shops and restaurants and traffic continued to go about their business in Copley Square, but at a level of noise and distraction compatible with a public entertainment. When the full ensemble carried in a set of tall poles with fluttering blue and white gauze banners to represent trees and turned the Athenian Court into the Fairy-haunted forest, there was a gasp of appreciation from the crowd: Rogers' banners were a form of enchantment.

The ingredients of "Midsummer Night's Dream" seem perfect to bring a cross-section of city dwellers into Copley Square. Two pairs of young lovers, star-crossed, fleeing their parents and the restrictions of home. Hard-handed Athenian craftsmen, inexperienced in matters Thespian but eager to put on a "lamentable comedy" at the Duke's wedding celebration. The King of fairyland, quarreling with his queen, sending his servant Puck with a potion that causes its victim to fall for the nearest love-object, however unsuitable, to knit all three strands of the plot into complications. The ending unites lovers, calls for tolerance and harmony, and blesses the place where this dream or vision has appeared.

Commonwealth's youthful cast was attractive, and an elaborate --and very loud -- sound system assured that their every word could be heard to the very edge of the park, even over babbling babies. All the speaking roles were filled by performers who had been trained to a level of competence -- no small accomplishment for a brand-new company playing Shakespeare. Some of the star-studded productions Joe Papp put on in NYC's Central Park were afflicted with a performer or two so inept at speaking verse that one winced every time he opened his mouth. There were no such lapses in the Commonwealth Shakespeare, and when the matter of a scene was such that shouting was appropriate --Egeus's denunciation of his daughter, Helena (Kwana Martinez) and Hermia (Emma Roberts)'s cat fight, the macho exchanges of threat between the young men -- the acting was just fine.

But mostly, the performers seemed to be thrown by the sound system. Perhaps there wasn't enough opportunity to rehearse with it? The delivery of Shakespeare's verse was about sixty percent shouting and posing, and forty percent acting. It was a real disappointment to hear D'Metrius Conley-Williams, who was so impressive in the Coyote "Weldon Rising", bombasting out Lysander's lines; and Faran Tahir, who was a dark and menacing figure of sexual insinuation as Oberon/Theseus in the ART Institute's S&M "Midsummer Night's Dream" a couple of years ago, reduced to a one-note bully playing the same doubled roles in this production. James Sobol's Puck seemed to be magically immune to the microphone-monotone problem, and Jason Fisher as Demetrius gained control over it as the play went on. By the end Fisher was in his element, packing three or four emotions into a paragraph.

ART veteran Jeremy Geidt could pack three or four emotions into a single word, right from his entrance as Peter Quince-- but then, in addition to his umpteen years of stage experience, Geidt had the advantage of speaking prose, and of the freedom to ad lib. All the Rude Mechanicals pressed these advantages: they were just as funny as Shakespeare meant them to be, and maybe a little bit over. William Young padded his part as Tom Stout and Tom Stout's part asWall shamelessly, and every other syllable got a laugh. Ed Yopchick's ample Bottom was perfectly timed, and his Pyramus heroic.. Liam Sullivan's Francis Flute flounced his way into a gorgeous Thisbe -- not an option in Shakespeare's time, as he'd outshine the boy actors playing the heroines: but hilarious here. John-Andrew Morrison's Lion was a perfect lamb. This abundant expertise on the part of the clowns added a second layer of irony to the last scene, where the aristocratic characters are condescending to the Mechanicals' amateur performance.

I heard people who sat in the first few rows comment favorably on beauty of Jane Alois Stein's costumes for the fairies, and the pleasing pictures the choreography made on stage. I also heard people in front of me laughing at some comic by-play between Bottom and Titania. But from where I sat, which was on a lawn chair less than half way back in the enclosure, many keys scenes of this Midsummer Night's Dream were simply invisible, including all of Bottom-the-Ass except the tips of his ears. Every time an actor sat or reclined, that actor disappeared from view. The hundreds of people sitting on blankets on the grass must have been able to see even less, which may explain why many of them left at intermission. For next year's show-- and I sincerely hope there will be one--please: assign someone to check the sight-lines!