As socko finishes go, few comedies can match the one William Shakespeare came up with 400-plus years ago for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The mirthfully tragic “Pyramus and Thisbe” skit — an Elizabethan foreshadowing of the canon of Mel Brooks — is as close to a guarantee of giddy-ever-after as any bit of amusement a playwright has ever put to paper.
That promise is fulfilled yet again in the pleasurable “Midsummer” that is exposing its funny bone on the stage of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall. It’s the contributions of the rude mechanicals performing for Athens royalty their classical abomination — a sort of cockeyed “Romeo and Juliet” — that lift director Ethan McSweeny’s staging above the run-of-the-mill versions of a play served across this land almost as regularly as burgers and fries.
These mechanicals, spurred on by the priceless Bruce Dow, playing a Nick Bottom so self-dramatizing he seems not only to be chewing the scenery but also picking tiny splinters of it out of his gums, provide one of the funniest “Pyramus and Thisbes” I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen plenty: easily two dozen, and maybe even three. (A playgoer behind me knew the piece so well, she —sigh — intermittently blurted out lines in tandem with the actors.)
If all the elements of this “Midsummer” don’t gel to this degree of sublime, they’ll do fine. The show is a great introduction to the Bard for younger theatergoers, who will get a special kick out of the dazzling entrances devised for the actors. In McSweeny’s treatment, the stage is the incubator of “Midsummer’s” magic, so much so that he turns set designer Lee Savage’s rendering of a crumbling theater into the place where, in chandeliers and under the floorboards, dwell the fairy regents Titania (Sara Topham) and Oberon (Tim Campbell) and their spritely minions. Among them most crucially is the impish Puck, portrayed here with ever so much rascally agility by Adam Green (who also distinguished himself a couple of years back as a wily participant in “The Liar”).
The stronger portions of this idea-packed “Midsummer,” however, are forced to vie with some lesser conceits. And so the play’s glorious symmetry, the supple interplay of the natural and supernatural worlds, seems a tad compromised.
McSweeny, who has become artistic director Michael Kahn’s go-to guy for visual panache (a beautiful “The Persians”) and overthought conceptualizing (a Lower East Side “Merchant of Venice”), here commits a little of both. The initial beckoning of the fairies is achieved with breathtaking cleverness: the flickering on of a ghost light on a bare stage. The entrance of Oberon is just as enchanting: A door slides open, revealing Campbell in matinee-idol profile, set off by the whiteout of a blizzard.
These literal applications of the stage, though, drift muddily into the realm of abstraction as the play’s four young lovers (Robert Beitzel, Christiana Clark, Chris Myers and Amelia Pedlow) pursue each other into the woods — er, into the theater. I know, I know, Puck tells us it’s all a dream, and Oberon at one point snaps his fingers and Tyler Micoleau’s efficient lighting turns arboreal green. But the winking question of who’s in control of the metaphors here, the fairies or the director, is too cute by half.
Other inventions, such as having the Athenian rulers Theseus and Hippolyta (Campbell and Topham again) read their welcoming speeches from index cards on a balcony, “Evita”-style, feel like extraneous whims.
Did I mention that it’s all set in the 1940s, with Beitzel’s guitar-strumming Lysander dressed by versatile designer Jennifer Moeller in Woody Guthrie’s proletarian-crooner duds and Myers’s country-club Demetrius toting around a 3-wood? It should be noted that as the magically confused lovers, all four actors are engaging, especially in their climactic quarrel, which winds up — quite, er, concretely — in a messy brawl.
Whatever nagging questions arise over the evening’s course, they are shunted to the wings by the arrival of the merry band of dolts who have been chosen by Theseus to perform their “Pyramus and Thisbe.” McSweeny’s gags all work, as in the visage of Herschel Sparber — an actor so tall he could be in violation of local building-code restrictions — portraying with clanging cans hanging from his arms the wall dividing the doomed Pyramus and Thisbe.
Robert Dorfman’s grinning idiot of a Snug, Ted van Griethuysen’s narcissistic Peter Quince and Christopher Bloch’s mealy-mouthed Starveling all get their gleeful little turns. Special plaudits are owed to David Graham Jones, who, while not exactly pretty in pink, is a drag delight as Thisbe and who makes of what is usually one throwaway line a truly hilarious bawdy joke.
Dow, who like the elegant Topham has a long association with the Stratford Festival in Ontario, manifests his Bottom as an ample slice of the choicest ham. Imagine “Modern Family’s” Eric Stonestreet in his lightest loafers, fluttering a red cape and gazing angelically into the distance, and you get an inkling of Dow’s marvelous comic countenance. It’s the kind of gusty storm of a performance that satisfyingly renews a very weathered play.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Sets, Lee Savage; choreography, Peter Pucci; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; music and sound, Fitz Patton; wigs and makeup, Leah J. Loukas; fight direction, Brad Waller; voice and text, Ellen O’Brien. With Lawrence Redmond, Nancy Anderson. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Dec. 30 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Go to www.shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.