Overall, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is pleasantly and colorfully accounted for at the Folger Theatre. If the production, which opened last night, wrings no new astonishments from Shakespeare's comedy, it honors most of the familiar enchantments. The Folger has been through the mill the past few months and in this, its final show of the season, seems palpably relieved to be free of the life-and-death entanglements.
Like most dreams, this one is wide open to interpretation. Titania's infatuation with an ass can be a playful bit of nonsense in a flowered bower, or it can carry disturbing overtones of bestiality. Puck can be a mischievous hummingbird or a mad hornet. Those four young lovers who take to the moonlit forest, only to discover that their passions have momentarily and inexplicably shifted, are charming in their befuddlement. But that's not to say they can't be cruel in their inconstancy.
It all depends on how you view these fools we mortals be. In recent years, our more rigorous directors have tended to depict Shakespeare's characters as asylum candidates and his midsummer dream as a nightmare. Audiences, however, are usually of a different mind. If they continue to rally to the play, it is for the romantic merriment, the shimmering magic and the high jinks of Bottom and his fellow buffoons as they go about the broad business of portraying "The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe."
Director John Neville-Andrews is definitely obliging the fun-seekers with a production that is content to let the proven scenes prove themselves all over again. In that respect, newcomers (to the play and the Folger) are apt to take more delight from the proceedings than will habitue's, who may, in fact, sense something vaguely formulaic about the evening. Nothing's being done by rote, perhaps, but patterns do have a way of persisting at the Folger from show to show.
From a visual standpoint, its productions usually come on strong, and "Midsummer" is no exception. Lewis Folden's set is a handsome piece of abstract design -- a series of polished wood slides rising steeply from the lip of the stage to the full moon above. The forest foliage is suggested by a profusion of metal and plastic strips hanging down from the heavens, like so many space-age stalactites. It's the kind of set that would test the agility of a mountain goat, and some of the Folger actors are considerably less sure of foot. But when lighting designer Richard Winkler turns on the lime greens, the Easter pinks and the sunshine yellows, the effect is undeniably lovely.
Elizabeth Covey's costumes for the fairies -- pink, green and pale purple wigs, and nighties made out of tatters of matching fabric -- aren't quite so felicitous. Indeed, it looks as if Covey had fed the chorines of "42nd Street" through a shredder. She does far better by Shakespeare's mortals. The lovers are foppishly elegant and the rustics triumphantly lumpen. You'll find plenty to gaze upon here -- buttons and bows, silks that go swish in the night and hats that manage to lower even a dunce's IQ.
And yet, the lavishness of the Folger's recent productions and the distinctive settings are not without a certain arbitrariness. The characters themselves don't always appear to have been consulted beforehand. Indeed, they can sometimes seem like last-minute additions, brought in to lend life to a preordained habitat. (It's a little like moving the Willy Loman family into a model home and asking them to pretend it's always been theirs.) Place and population are not exactly one in this "Midsummer."
Nor does the production entirely surmount a problem that has nagged the Folger since its inception: the wildly divergent skills of the company. (That's one reason, I suspect, the Folger goes so heavily on the decorations: they help conceal the imbalance.) Such actors as Jim Beard (Bottom), Anne Stone (Hippolyta) and Richard Hart (Puck) are in dire need of renewal, although Hart's costume and makeup give him the decidedly original appearance of a derelict by way of Samuel Beckett. On the other hand, there are deliciously fresh performances by Floyd King (Flute), David Cromwell (Peter Quince) and Emery Battis (Egeus).
Of the four discombobulated lovers, Rita Litton (Helena) and Alessandro Cima (Demetrius) register most forcefully -- she with her sharp, eternally surprised features; he with his downcast mouth and looks of brave gravity, all implying that never was a swain so sorely tested. Edward Gero's Oberon is rather humorless in the exercise of his supernatural powers -- he seems in fact to be moonlighting from a low-grade sci-fi serial -- but Steven Crossley brings more than customary good nature to the role of Theseus.
Whatever shortcomings crop up along the way, however, most spectators will be willing to forgive them once the rustics get around to enacting their version of "Pyramus and Thisbe." The idiocies of that hopeless opus are "Midsummer's" insurance policy -- all but guaranteed to pay off, even when everything else fails. Neville-Andrews stages it with a relish born, perhaps, of his early association with "El Grande de Coca-Cola." And King -- fighting stage fright, a stutter and the humiliation of sausage curls -- takes Thisbe to the dizzy heights of low comedy. Effortlessly.