Sunday, March 23, 2003

'Midsummer' frolics but sells its soul short

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is a frosting-on-the-cake kind of production, and I admit it's grumpy of me to point out there's no cake.

Since the company's recent dance on the edge of oblivion, management has said this was going to be a spring of crowd-pleasers.

Director Nick Rose's approach here is crowd-pleasing with a vengeance - tireless high jinks, as a love quadrangle plays out in a forest inhabited by a warring fairy king and queen, and, oh yeah, a crowd of country bumpkins rehearsing the "lamentable tragical comedy" Pyramus and Thisbe.

The riotous, pratfalling nonsense is what works best in this Dream, led by a drolly bombastic performance by Brian Isaac Phillips as Bottom, the weaver who ends up with the head of an ass, and as the object of affection of Titania (Taylore Mahogany Scott), the bewitched fairy queen.

There's plenty to like in this Dream, as the characters frolic on and around what looks like a temple ruin designed by Zack Brown.

Both Jeremy Aggers and Jeffrey Bower do pleasing double duty as ardent lovers and eager amateur actors. (Although Aggers' dim Snug, performed as asked, is a prime example of how Rose and company don't know when a joke is overplayed or has played itself out. But I never got the Three Stooges, either.)

Christopher Guthrie continues to impress, this time juggling three roles including Puck. He's a surprising physical type for the gravity-defying sprite, but he makes it work. All his roles are played for big laughs (for the better part of a scene, his face pokes through what looks like a giant's toilet seat). Guthrie manages to find different big laughs for each one. He's a real asset to the festival ensemble.

All that said, anyone who has a history with the festival will know that Dream has been done better before. Rose makes a lot of easy choices, and it gets the job done, to a point.

This Dream left me with the constantly nagging desire for art along with the artifice, for a soul.

Dream marks the return of Giles Davies to the festival company. He has a singular interpretation of fairy king Oberon. This Oberon seems to be from a species once-removed from humankind, supported by Davies' physical agility.

Davies' Oberon is both fascinating and credible, but there's a loss - there's no connection - or chemistry - between Davies' king and Scott's queen.

This Dream is not kind to its women characters, and three strong actresses show to no good effect here.

Part of the problem is that Corinne Mohlenhoff, as lovelorn Helena, and Ghillian Porter, as gentle Hermia, are the same physical type (undercutting many jokes).

But it's bigger than that. Rose doesn't do right by either of them, or their subplot about loving despite not being loved in return.

Intent on ratcheting up the shouting and slapstick, Helena and Hermia are played strictly for laughs. Too bad, they're wonderful characters when they're allowed to be. Too bad, Mohlenhoff and Porter are completely capable of giving more than Rose asked for.

Costumer Heidi Jo Schiemer must have worked 24/7 to deliver an array of costumes that ranges from the civilized 19th century to fairyland. Most of it looks very good, but even with a non-budget, I wish she'd rethought Scott's costumes.

The festival is only just finding its way back onto stable economic ground. Even so, I'll suggest its best hope for long-term survival will be finding a way to honor both its young, energetic roots and its more recent artistic reach that delivered - thanks to many of the actors currently on the festival stage - some of the most exciting theater in Cincinnati.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, through April 13, Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, 719 Race St. 381-2279.


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