Riotous imagination casts a spell on Folger’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’

...and the magnificent Playhouse, built inside the Great Hall of the National Building Museum, is a theatrical wonderland.

I have had a most rare vision. I had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was… The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.
Bottom, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV, Scene 1

The Folger’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is an act of riotous imagination. In a way, it is a dream within a dream within a dream: the dream of the play as we watch it; the dream of the fairy kingdom; and the dream of the Mechanicals’ unintentionally comic masterpiece, the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Puck (Danaya Esperanza, center) and fairies in Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

The magnificent Playhouse, designed by Scenic Designer Tony Cisek in collaboration with Jim Hunter is a theatrical wonderland. Looking upward in the Great Hall of the National Building Museum, we can see Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. There is a sphere suffused with blue light hanging over the stage, a symphony of gold and blue, with elegant spiral staircases.

Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Dream ends with marriages. It also ends with a play, but this version begins with one, too: In the first scene, the Mechanicals are casting Pyramus and Thisbe.

Peter Quince (John-Alexander Sakelos), who gives out the orders, wields his somewhat shaky authority with hard-won dignity. Jacob Ming-Trent as Bottom is a dynamic and hilarious presence; he wants to play every part, and I was ready to give them to him! John Floyd (Flute) isn’t thrilled to be chosen as Thisbe, but he is terrific in the role. When Kathryn Zoerb (Starveling)  first sees Bottom in full ass mode she has a scream that resounds all around the theater. Sabrina Lynne Sawyer (Snug) and Brit Herring (Snout), as the Lion and the Wall respectively, add considerably to the hilarity when Pyramus and Thisbe has its debut performance.

Oberon (Rotimi Agbabiaka), king of the fairies, falls for Bottom (Jacob Ming-Trent), here, transformed as an ass, in Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s magical comedy ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the National Building Museum (Brit Herring and Sabrina Lynne Sawyer also pictured as fairies of the forest). Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Rotimi Agbabiaka, in a stunning pink skirt and patent-leather heels, manages to turn Oberon, often a “nothing” part, into a laugh riot. In this version, it is Titania (Nubia M. Monks) who gives Oberon the love potion. Gender equality! He wakes up and falls in love with Jacob Ming-Trent’s Bottom, in a very fetching ass’s head. When Agbabiaka tells Bottom, “You are as wise as you are beautiful,” it is even funnier than when Titania does it.

A joyous and celebratory moment between Titania (Nubia M. Monks) and Oberon (Rotimi Agbabiaka) in Folger Theatre’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Lilli Hokama (Hermia), dressed like a schoolgirl in a skirt and sweater, is delightful in the love scenes. But she proves very athletic when it counts. She lives up fully to what Helena says of her, “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” Her Lysander (Hunter Ringsmith) matches her fully in energy and talent.

We feel for Renea S. Brown’s Helena. Tall and beautiful, she has been so demoralized by Demetrius’ initial rejection that when Lysander and Demetrius hail her as a goddess, she is convinced they are making fun of her. Demetrius, Brian Barbarin, skillfully makes the transition from despising her to realizing she is his one true love.

Danaya Esperanza as Puck convinces us that she could indeed “put a girdle round the earth in 40 minutes.” Nubia M. Monks, a masterful Titania, is equally authoritative as the Amazon warrior Hippolyta. She rolls her eyes eloquently at her debonair intended, Theseus (Rotimi Agbabiaka), perhaps because he captured her in war, or perhaps because he is simply annoying her.

A free-for-all erupts between lovers in Folger Theatre’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Pictured: Hunter Ringsmith (Lysander) and Bryan Barbarin (Demetrius) on left; Lilli Hokama (Hermia) and Renea S. Brown (Helena) on right; Nubia M. Monks as Titania and Danaya Esperanza as Puck up top. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Helena and Hermia’s catfight is a bravura performance. So is the donnybrook involving all four lovers. There are delightful modern touches, some of them in dialogue. “Let that Black man roar again!” for example, or “Black baby Jesus!”

The Mechanicals’ presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe is the perfect finale to an evening of wonder. Bottom’s Pyramus enters in what looks like a Roman centurion’s attire, complete with a helmet with a red plume, which swings around as if in a breeze. He is a superb “military” as well as amorous Pyramus, although he has some difficulty staying dead.

The cast of Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ inside the Great Hall of the National Building Museum. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Director Victor Malana Maog is surrounded by a creative team of consummate brilliance: Production Design by Tony Cisek, Festival Stage Design by Jim Hunter, Costume Design by Olivera Gajic, Lighting Design by Yael Lubetzky, Sound Design by Brandon Wolcott (who is also the Composer) and Choreography by Alexandra Beller.

Some dreams are so beautiful you don’t want to wake up. This is one of them.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays from July 12 to August 28, 2022, presented by Folger Theatre performing at The Playhouse inside the National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Performance times are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8:00 pm; Wednesdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm; Saturdays at 4:30 pm and 8:00 pm; and Sundays at 7:00 pm. Tickets are $20–$85 (with discounts available for first-time audience members, seniors, and military) and may be purchased from the Folger Theatre Box Office (202) 544-7077 or online.

The program for A Midsummer Night’s Dream is online here.

COVID Safety: Folger Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will require audience members to provide proof of vaccination and wear a mask at all times inside the theater. See complete COVID-19 Health and Safety Protocols here.

SEE ALSO: A first look at Folger’s magical ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the National Building Museum by Barbara Mackay

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She has an extensive background in theater. Her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied Classics and English at Barnard and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe.


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