‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ enchants as 1980s teen comedy at Everyman Theatre

This wonderful and joyous production hinges on the existential question 'My God, are we gonna be like our parents?'

Everyman Theatre closes its season with an enchanting and jubilant adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Expertly directed with pizzazz by Associate Artistic Director Noah Himmelstein, this must-see production’s novel concept by adapter Gavin Witt is brilliantly realized through the thoughtful work of dramaturg Robyn Quick.

The induction scene begins as four folks (three Resident Company members, Deborah Hazlett, Bruce Randolph Nelson, Jefferson A. Russell, and Natalya Lynnette Rathnam in her Everyman debut) wander onto a foggy stage, which is decorated as an old theater storage space, with some stacked chairs and chandeliers on the floor. What has drawn them back to this uncanny site of their youth? Are they here for a high school reunion? Is this where they performed in high school productions 20-plus years before? They explore the terrain and pick up nostalgic items. As one slips a cassette tape into a dusty old boombox, they begin swaying to Fleetwood Mac’s “Seven Wonders,” warm smiles of past memories lighting their faces. Fairies emerge from the shadows, cast a spell over the four, and lead them offstage and into their magical realm, a stage (beautifully designed by Daniel Ettinger) that evolves into an Art Deco theater wonder, where the geometric designs become the trees of the fairy forest outside of Athens.

James Whalen (Egeus/Snout/Mustardseed/Wall), Helen Hedman Snug/Cobweb/Lion, Hanna Kelly (Quince/Moth/Moonshine), Suzanna Catherine Fox (Flute/Peaseblossom/Thisbe), and Zack Powell (Philostrate/Puck) in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The four soon reappear in the first act as Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander. The production’s fresh approach—casting four middle-aged actors as the young Athenian lovers—both plays to the strengths of Everyman’s ensemble and creates a beautiful study of nostalgia and how our formative teen years create who we become, whether repressing or heartily embracing youthful desires. (There is precedent for playing with casting ages, such as 82-year-old Sir Ian McKellan playing the youthful Danish prince in Theatre Royal Windsor’s 2021 production of Hamlet.)

This Midsummer hinges on the existential question posed by John Hughes, the director of white, suburban, Midwest, teenage comedies of the 1980s, in The Breakfast Club: “My God, are we gonna be like our parents?”

Nelson is a randy, raunchy Lysander and he finds little comedic tics at every opportunity, such as when he bests a foe using only the auburn locks of his wig (Denise O’Brien’s fantastic wigs top many heads in this play). Hazlett offers pathos as the dismissed Helena who still pines for Demetrius and follows at his heels like a spurned spaniel. Russell is a feisty Demetrius, always ready for a brawl. And Rathnam shines as Hermia, a little spitfire with a black fringed bob and a canary-colored dress, who speaks in an affected manner, overstressing the heroic rhymes of this poetic comedy to great effect. They quite literally throw themselves on one another in wooing scenes, and the slapstick fighting among the four even includes that worst fate of middle school arguments: purple nurples. The follies of youth extend well beyond the teen years, showing that our deepest fears and desires don’t really grow and evolve. What fools these (middle-aged) mortals be!

The production offers time travel by interpolating music that would’ve been popular when the lovers were at prom or starring in their high school Shakespeare production in the 1980s: pop songs by the likes of David Bowie and Janet Jackson and from the era’s film soundtrack standards (Dirty Dancing, Labyrinth) punctuate scene changes, the cast dances and lip syncs to Jefferson Starship, and Puck plays an acoustic guitar and Rickrolls the crowd by singing Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” We all know the power of a favorite song to bring us back to a first kiss, slow dance, or breakup, and the sound design by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca plays with aural nostalgia with aplomb.

The delightfully ingenious costumes for the Athenian lovers by David Burdick also hint at prom attire (cummerbunds, formal menswear worn with Converses, or Hermia’s dress covered by a zipped hoodie and backpack) without becoming too literal or looking silly on the adult cast. (Likewise, Burdick’s costuming is smartly themed across the production from the Rude Mechanicals’ penchant for denim, the fairies dressed like children putting on all their favorite, neon-colored mismatched pieces and tutus at once, the beautiful regal wear of the two royal couples, and Puck’s fringed trousers that hint at a faun’s shaggy goat legs.)

TOP LEFT: Jefferson A. Russell (Demetrius), Deborah Hazlett (Helena), Bruce Randolph Nelson Lysander), Natalya Lynette Rathnam (Hermia); TOP RIGHT: Helen Hedman (Snug/Cobweb/Lion), Suzanna Catherine Fox (Flute/Peaseblossom/Thisbe), Tony Nam (Bottom/Pyramus), Hanna Kelly (Quince/Moth/Moonshine), James Whalen (Egeus/Snout/Mustardseed/Wall); ABOVE: The cast, in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Photos by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The world of the fairies where the lovers find themselves is a place of magic but also menacing. As the royals—both the divine fairies Titania and Oberon, and the Athenian king Theseus and his Amazon bride Hippolyta—Andreá Bellamore and René Thornton Jr. (both in their Everyman debuts) are regal and beautiful, but also petty, jealous, petulant, and sometimes cruel. Zack Powell brings all the zaniness and mayhem as the mischievous sprite Puck, dashing across the stage, flashing a brilliant smile, strumming his guitar, and gracefully climbing the stage’s scaffolding.

There is magic galore—love potions, time stopping, sleights of hand, and more (Aja M. Jackson’s exquisite lighting design, original music by Kanchanabanca, quick-paced choreography by Shalyce Hemby, and Lewis Shaw leading intimacy and fight sequences) add to this mystical world. This leads to a sense of darkness and danger: the fairies’ feud has led to a climate catastrophe, the lovers are manipulated and humiliated before pairing off into couples again, Bottom is transformed into a donkey, and even Puck expresses fear of haunted spirits in the woods. And can one ever really forgive Oberon for his cruel trick against Titania in making her engage in bestiality and also stealing her adopted son (portrayed by a sympathetic puppet), the child of a dead beloved friend?

Titania’s train of playful and bewitching spirits played by Suzanna Catherine Fox, Helen Hedman, Hanah Kelly, and James Whelan double as the incredibly funny Rude Mechanicals, and Tony Nam leads the acting troupe as the bombastic but good-natured Bottom. Only the second Shakespeare production for Everyman, this particular play with its focus on an acting troupe aligns so beautifully with the rarity of Everyman Theatre’s resident acting company. These actors develop trust and relationships by working together so often, and anticipate each other’s movements and choices so deeply. It’s always a joy to see how much fun they seem to have in each other’s company.

A highlight of any Midsummer worth its weight in pixie dust is the final play-within-a-play, and this one’s no exception. Fox is a naughty Flute/Thisbe who gyrates every time she mentions Ninus’ tomb; Kelly brings big musical theater kid energy to her role as the plucky playwright Quince/Moonshine; Whalen plays the role of Snout/Wall “most obscenely”; and Hedman is a “harmless necessary cat” (to quote Merchant of Venice) as Snug, which is comically unfortunate as she should embrace the role of a roaring, fearful Lion. There are so many mishaps in their “Pyramus and Thisbe”—misplaced swords, bad blockings, forgotten lines, and a tumble down the stairs—that someone must’ve said the Scottish thane’s name before they took the stage.

The induction scene is frameworked by a series of subtle and un-magical transformations back into the real world—through an onstage costume change, Titania and Oberon turn into Hippolyta and Theseus; Bottom’s donkey head is removed; the fairies take the stage in their all too mortal forms as the Rude Mechanicals; and even the charming Puck becomes the bumbling, bookish Philostrate. But the lovers all seem renewed, refreshed, and younger than in the beginning of the play. As the whole ensemble dances to another Fleetwood Mac classic, “Gypsy,” the entire theater is lit up with festooned lights and chandeliers. And that—the entire process of stopping two hours in the real world, entering a spectral, fantastical place, leaving renewed and transformed by others who also went on the same weird, wild journey—is magical, too.

In The Breakfast Club, the question posed—“My God, are we gonna be like our parents?”—elicits shock and denial from the group of rebellious teens. No one wants to grow up, to care more about retirement funding than romance, to become boring and dull and old. Allison (Ally Sheedy) concedes, “It’s unavoidable, it just happens. … When you grow up, your heart dies…” This wonderful and joyous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is so lovely, lively, and magical that it disproves those teenage fears.

Running time: Two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays through June 9, 2024, at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette St., Baltimore, MD. Purchase tickets ($29–$75) online or contact the box office by phone at 410-752-2208 (Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., and Saturday, 12-4 p.m.) or email [email protected].

Accessibility: Everyman emphasizes their commitment to accessibility for all, including those with economic challenges, with Pay What You Choose prices.

The cast and creative credits are online here (scroll down).

COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged, though not required. Everyman’s complete health and safety guide is here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Noah Himmelstein


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