Entertainment » Theatre

A Midsummer Night's Dream

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Oct 9, 2015
Claire Redcliffe takes on a whopping five roles in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' through Oct. 10 at Wellesley College
Claire Redcliffe takes on a whopping five roles in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' through Oct. 10 at Wellesley College  (Source:Actors From the London Stage)

Actors From the London Stage -- a group of Shakespearean theater professionals from different companies in the UK who have banded together to bring their expertise to institutions of higher learning -- are stopping off at Wellesley College for a weeklong residency that includes three nights of performance. It may be autumn, but the five actors in the group make their radically stripped-down production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" into a captivating autumnal delight suitable for the Halloween season.

You know the story. Or perhaps you don't: Two ordinary human lovers, desperate to be together but threatened with separation, take flight; meanwhile, two supernatural spouses become embroiled in a fight. They intersect in an enchanted forest, where a troupe of clueless amateur actors happens to be pulling an all-nighter to prepare a play for presentation to the king. (They won't be giving up their day job as builders any time soon.) The mix turns out to be a volatile one, with romantic chaos and enchanting entertainment the result.

Each of the five actors takes on multiple roles -- most of them content themselves with four parts, though one undertakes five. Both couples -- human and on the run; supernal and quarreling -- are played by the same two actors, Samuel Collings and Claire Redcliffe. Their human characters are Lysander and Hermia, who must flee Athens to escape an arranged marriage Helena's father is trying to force her into. They also play Oberon, the King of the Fairies, and his wife, Titania.

Chris Donnelly plays Helena's father as well as Demetrius (the man she's expected to marry like a good daughter.) Ffion Jolly plays Helena, a girlhood friend of Hermia's who now betrays Hermia and Lysander, spilling the beans about their escape in hopes that Demetrius -- with whom she's smitten -- will reward her loyalty by marrying her instead of Hermia.

The Athenian king is played by Patrick Moy, who also plays the fairy Puck, Oberon's mischief-making right-hand man. This bit of casting seems an odd choice, given that Moy has more a commanding presence than a raffish one; the arrangement does leave intact the strategy of casting of same actors to play both sets of lovers, which is interesting in an academic way, but many's the time when one catches oneself wondering what Moy would do with the role of Oberon.

Not that Collings doesn't do a first-rate job as the king of the fairies. Mr. Collings seems to be a student of yoga, given that he uses yoga poses in his portrayal of Oberon. It's a facility of movement that also comes in handy for his half-bestial take on what a powerful fairy should be like -- sophisticated, to a degree, but feral in his passions. This is an Oberon given to running on all fours and scrabbling over people like a wolf. He gives those enchanted woods a touch of danger.

As Puck, Moy proves inventive. He communicates the character's gleeful talent for mayhem, and also puts a question mark over Puck's habit of mirroring his mater's postures: Is Puck a sycophant, or is he mocking Oberon when he strikes an identical pose?

Donnelly's duties as Demetrius offer plenty of comic fodder, especially as the night grows odder by the minute, with the characters falling madly in and out of love with the help of fairy dust and exotic herbs. But he truly shines as Bottom, the attention-seeking actor who wants all the good parts for himself in the play the acting troupe is feverishly trying to perfect, literally overnight. It's Bottom, of course, whom Puck turns into a monstrous chimera with the body a man and the head of a donkey, after Oberon has dosed the sleeping Titania with a love potion. The concoction causes the Fairy Queen to adore the all-too-asinine Bottom at first sight. (The same potion causes all manner of trouble in another quarter of the woods, when Demetrius and Lysander both get a dose and the formerly-rejected Helena is suddenly the bewildered object of their increasingly aggressive affections.)

The fact that the same handful of players so zestfully tackle the technical challenge of portraying all three groups in the woods -- lovers, fairies, and amateur actors -- stands in illuminating contrast to the minimalism of the production. The Actors From the London Stage seem to be making the point that theater is all about the talents of the people putting on the show, and isn't so very reliant on the trimmings. The actors make their case compelling -- though, that said, the lighting design, by David Towlun unquestionable helps set the mood.

There is no set, nor any furnishings apart from a row of chairs to which the players retreat when they are not needed. The costuming is contemporary, though evocative of whatever characters are being played at the moment; simple shifts in garments (a long coat, a shawl) suffice, because each of the five are so good at morphing into different, distinct personae. The props are kept to a minimum, too, and are simplistic in design: A donkey head that's more of a sketch made out of wire, for example, or wooden swords. The troupe's acting talents are guided by director Nora Hussey, who ensures that even as the play approaches the three-hour mark the energy in the room never flags. In some productions, the play-within-the-play, which is presented late in the story to the king by the amateur acting troupe, feels like a tacked-on appendage, or even an irritant; here, it's the mad capstone to a mad evening's frolics.

Sometimes we're not quite sure whether it's the play, or the play within the play, that is the thing; there are even times when you might wonder, as the characters do, if you haven't slipped into a wonderfully frenetic and amusing dream. The answer, of course, is that you have, thanks to the spell cast by these thespian visitors.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" continues through Oct. 10 at Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall, 106 Central Street, Wellesley College. This event is free of charge. For more information, please visit wellesly.edu/theatre/currentseason

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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