A zany good ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at American Shakespeare Center

It’s a pleasure to see the company at its comedic best; their creativity and devil-may-care attitude are on full display.

If you’re looking for an uproarious good time, there’s no other place on the planet where you can wear yourself out with belly laughs, even at the oldest and cheapest gags, than the American Shakespeare Center’s current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s always a pleasure to see the company at its comedic best, and this production is no exception; their creativity and devil-may-care attitude are on full display here, and in the intimate confines of the Blackfriars Playhouse, there’s hardly a seat where you don’t find yourself immersed in the mayhem.

For the uninitiated, Midsummer is a classic romantic comedy that is purported to have a plot — something to do with weddings, mismatched young lovers, mischievous sprites, not to mention a gang of working stiffs who, without a thimble-full of talent between them, still insist on putting on a show.

Nicolas Eric Sanchez, Natasia Lucia Reinhardt, and Kenn Hopkins Jr. as Musicians and Annabelle Rollison as Bottom in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Photo by October Grace Media.

The action begins with the upcoming marriage between King Theseus of Athens and his war booty bride, and real Amazon, Hippolyta (Summer England, decked here in an appropriately badass “Game of Thrones”–style white wig). This is clearly not a marriage made in heaven. To complicate things further there are star-crossed lovers, a young woman who loves one Athenian but who is set to marry another (dad’s rules, natch). A plot is hatched to help the true-love couple elope to the woods outside of town.

And it is in said woods, of course, that all hell breaks loose, with the aid of the fairies. A tiff between the Fairy King Oberon and his Queen Titania, like our other royals clearly not the best match, leads to a sequence of spells being cast and miscast, with hilarious results.

Among the fairies’ many victims is an especially thick-headed laborer, Bottom the Weaver, who thinks he’s the next Brad Pitt; his fate must be seen to be believed — and believe it you will. Bottom’s rehearsal schedule gets seriously disrupted by his transformation into a donkey, thanks to the efforts of a certain trouble-making sprite, Puck. And, once donkey-fied, he finds that Titania is really, really hot for him. Happens every day, right?

As Bottom, Annabelle Rollison gives us a masterclass in comic delivery, with hardly a single line left untouched. Her gift for physical comedy matches her vocal chops too; at the play’s climax, when Bottom stars in the ill-begotten show “Pyramus and Thisbe,” Rollison also gives us some truly risqué slapstick that puts the Rude back in Rude Mechanical — definitely in the spirit of the original.

As Oberon’s aide and trickster-in-chief, Puck, Joe Mucciolo gives us a slacker fairy who is frankly a bit sloppy when it comes to following instructions. His star turn as Puck is made even more hilarious when he transforms himself into Philostrate, the crotchety old servant to King Theseus.

TOP: Joe Mucciolo as Puck and Aidan O’Reilly as Oberon; ABOVE: Kenn Hopkins Jr. as Peaseblossom, Nicolas Eric Sanchez as Mote, and Philip Orazio as Mustardseed, in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Photos by October Grace Media.

The royal couples are delightfully double-cast here; as Theseus/Oberon, Aidan O’Reilly truly relishes the power, both military and magical, that he has over his opposite, here played by Summer England, whose initial iciness (as Hippolyta) is offset by her comic turn as Titania, and her strange fixation with that walking, talking donkey.

As always, the cast regales us with pop numbers apropos the action — the Stephen Stills–cum–Isley Brothers classic “Love the One You’re With” gets a good workout here, as does Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” (I mean, really, you’re going to do Midsummer without that one?). Meanwhile, Aidan O’Reilly turns in his own original, bluesy “Bright Leaves on the Ground,” while Annabelle Rollison comes up with a hilarious rewrite of Trey Z’s “Bottoms Up.” Older folks (myself included, ahem) can go online and learn a thing or two about what people are listening to these days, which is a lot of fun in itself.

The cast, having already established their chops with the other two shows in this spring’s repertory — Julius Caesar and Pride and Prejudice — is now in full control of the material, the stage, and the Blackfriars Playhouse space. Their impeccable sense of comic timing here guarantees that even when some of the speeches go on a bit long, the tempo of the action hardly slackens.

The word “zany” was meant for these masters of comedy, who mine Shakespeare’s language for every double-entendre, every absurd rhyme, and every ridiculously hard consonant. It’s one thing to say that Shakespeare was a great writer; I mean, yeah, we all know that. It’s another thing to treat him like he is a pathetic hack who can’t write his way out of a wet paper bag, and have you laugh at the Bard’s ridiculous language. This cannot be missed!

The ASC’s repertory is now in full bloom, like our cherry blossoms and magnolias; it only needs you to make the joy and the mirth complete.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one intermission.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays through June 9, 2024, in repertory with Pride and Prejudice (through June 8) and Julius Caesar (through June 8) presented by American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 South Market Street, Staunton, VA. For tickets ($34–$73), call the box office at (540) 851-3400, or purchase them online.

Cast and artistic team credits for A Midsummer Night’s Dream are online here (scroll down).

COVID Safety: American Shakespeare Center strongly encourages patrons to mask when possible. ASC’s complete COVID-19 Safety Visitor’s Guide is here.


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