Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is whimsical and silly, the Bard's paean to love, fairies and dancing in the moonlight. Sounds as though it could use a full reggae blast of Bob Marley, doesn't it? Cheryl Collins apparently thought so, and, as artistic director of Metropolitan Ebony Theatre, she has put her idea onstage.
This lightweight comedy is often given an unusual setting or thematic approach, and the idea of plucking the lovers, imps and fairies from an ancient Greek forest and resettling them in the Caribbean sounds promising. However, for such productions to succeed, 100 percent commitment is required. The concept must guide everything that happens onstage, while Shakespeare's poetry is left intact. MET has committed, oh, about 60 percent.
The Jamaican ambiance is colorful and rich, with a magical quality that fits nicely with the mystical mischief of Shakespeare's forest. But Collins has held back, evoking Jamaica primarily with costumes and distracting island accents that render much of the dialogue incomprehensible, because some of the actors have poor diction, and some American ears have trouble with the accent. Regardless, it is a director's basic responsibility to make certain an audience can understand the words.
The reggae music, from Marley to current island heartthrob Jean-Paul Bourelly, is used primarily for transitions. There's a bit of steel drum and even something that can only be described as reggae rap. One wishes Collins had done more with the music, because in the several instances where she has incorporated it into the play itself, the effect is enchanting.
A wonderfully vivid atmosphere is created in the opening scene, as fairies Peaseblossom (Sherone Harrison), Cobweb (Vanessa Allegra) and Mustardseed (Dominique Dionne Foggy) dance to rhythmic island music on a raked platform, flanked by stylized towers draped with rich cloth. The backdrop is dominated by a large, moonlike circle, designed by and evocatively lighted by Dave Stock. The fairies' movement, choreographed by Allegra, combines elements of traditional African themes with whispers of modern jazz. It evokes the lush island atmosphere, exotic and dreamlike, and makes the viewer eagerly anticipate more.
It's a long wait. Except for brief snatches of music during scene changes, and the gentle lullaby scene as the fairies put their queen to sleep in her vibrantly colored forest bed, it's pretty quiet in the woods until the happy ending wedding scene, where island music and dance are once again the central focus. Along the way there are only occasional references to remind us of the location, but one wishes they were better than "let's do a bowl" or having someone comment about "the spicy Jamaican air."
The story follows a set of Shakespeare's typically star-crossed lovers, who are toyed with by the impish fairy Puck (Raymond Jacquet) during a long summer's night. Magic potions cause lovers to get mismatched, a local amateur actor named Bottom (Marlan Russ) ends up with a donkey's head, and even the fairies' Queen Titania (Lakeisha Harrison) is put under a spell before it's all straightened out in the light of dawn.
As Oberon, king of the fairies, Sean Thomas seems pained rather than amused by the goings-on; he needs a lighter approach. Harrison is regal and self-possessed as Queen Titania, and Lolita Marie dominates her scenes as Helena, one of the young lovers, radiating charm and presence. Jivon Lee Jackson displays spirit and energy as Lysander, another of the lovers.
As for Jacquet's Puck, he seems to be having a good time, but very little of what he said was understandable, a problem shared by Stephan Collins-Stepney, as the lover Demetrius. Trying to decipher what these two were saying brings to mind the words of some other eloquent Englishmen: "It's been a hard day's night."
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" continues through May 29, performed by Metropolitan Ebony Theatre at the Hallam Theatre, Queen Anne Fine Arts Building, on the campus of Prince George's Community College, 301 Largo Road, Largo. Performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. For reservations, call 301-322-0444.