Never say never.
I thought I was completely over and done with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Having seen it dozens of times, indoors and outdoors, in productions influenced by the Renaissance or rock, with fairies in tutus or jeans, Pucks suspended in midair or curling like a contortionist and young lovers splashing in pools or romping in arbors, I did not think I had another “Midsummer” in me.
How wrong I was.
The upending of my jaded preconceptions can be traced to a director, Aaron Posner, who with a Folger Theatre cast headed by Holly Twyford (as a priceless Bottom) mines wonderful new laughs, comes up with splendid new mishaps and brings back to uproarious life a play that you ordinarily think has been done to death.
This is evolving into the Washington theater season of oldies packed with goodies. Between the transcendent “West Side Story” at Signature Theatre and the polished “Glass Menagerie” at Ford’s Theatre, some of the choicest items in the dramatic basket are turning out to be finely cultured chestnuts. Now, with the addition of Posner’s uber-witty “Midsummer,” that basket is on the verge of overflowing.
Oftentimes with “Midsummer,” a comic imbalance manifests itself, in a production weighted directorially in favor of the quartet of the dewy lovers escaping into a magic-infused forest, or one giving the greatest emphasis to the woodland sprites, presided over by Oberon and Titania. Or it might find its surest inspiration in the band of rude mechanicals, led by the preening Bottom, who rehearse a god-awful play they want to put on for the Athenian king, Theseus, after his wedding to his new queen, Hippolyta.
What sets this version apart is its wholesale embrace of performance, its love of actors, the marvelous crazy salad it tosses using all of Shakespeare’s ingredients. The comic seasoning is provided by a terrifically in-sync cast that includes Erin Weaver as Puck, Eric Hissom as Oberon and Theseus, and Caroline Stefanie Clay as Hippolyta and Titania. The wizardry on display stamps this evening as belonging in the top drawer of Posner’s work for Folger, right up there with his revelatory “Measure for Measure” in 2006 and illusion-cloaked “Macbeth” in 2008.
The director has taken care, too, to achieve an enjoyable chemistry among the four young people, imagined here as natty trend-conscious millennials. Adam Wesley Brown’s Lysander, Betsy Mugavero’s Hermia, Desmond Bing’s Demetrius and Kim Wong’s Helena look, thanks to costume designer Devon Painter, as if they marched into the forest out of ads for J. Crew and Anthropologie. Together, they bathe the cheeky farce in a vivacious, sensual glow.
As for the mechanicals: Posner’s inspired idea is to transform Shakespeare’s grizzled working stiffs into members of an all-girls high school drama club, led by a drama teacher (Richard Ruiz’s Peter Quince) and a sort of outrageously fatuous lampoon of Miss Jean Brodie effected by Twyford. The schoolgirl conceit succeeds to a remarkable degree — and deserves a hand for giving women a crack at these juicy roles. Dressed as prim students in perfect pleated uniforms, the actresses endearingly unleash their inner clowns. They’re funny across the board, so let’s name them all: Justina Adorno as Starveling, Monique Robinson as Snout, Dani Stoller as Flute, and the exceptionally funny Megan Graves as a Snug with serious vocal issues.
They all apparently have enrolled in a master comedy class presided over by Twyford, who hereby categorically establishes Nick Bottom — rechristened “Nikki” (or “Nicki”?) — as a role for either sex. If any one performance embodies this “Midsummer’s” leavening spirit, it’s Twyford’s. Her Bottom is just the right kind of loony; it projects an unhinged quality that often escapes tamer portrayals. Attired and behaving as if she were a kooky English teacher given to flowery readings of Tennyson in class, Twyford gives us a Bottom who’s finally getting the attention she deserves, as the doomed lover Pyramus in Quince’s equally doomed venture, “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe.”
First, however, she has to go to the woods to be turned by Oberon into an ass, as a gag on Titania, who . . . oh, never mind. (Posner even finds room for a funny Sondheim reference here.) Painter, the costume designer, is the production’s not-so-quiet hero: the loud getup revealing Bottom’s magical metamorphosis is one of the better “Midsummer” donkey treatments you’re ever liable to encounter. The sport that Hissom, Clay and Weaver make of the mortals reflects all the necessary facets of their playful, competitive and, in the case of this particular female Puck, lovelorn natures.
One could catalogue the many other comedic attractions in Posner’s “Midsummer” amusement park, or go on about the catchy contemporary music supplied by Andre Pluess and Sarah Pickett, or take note of the big overstuffed cushions adorning Paige Hathaway’s set, as if Shakespeare built this comedy for a gigantic pillow fight. Or I could just stop right here and you can get on with picking out your seats.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Choreography, Erika Chong Shuch; set, Paige Hathaway; costumes, Devon Painter; lighting, Jesse Belsky; original music, Andre Pluess; sound and additional music, Sarah Pickett; dramaturgy, Michele Osherow. With Elliott Bales. About 2 hours 25 minutes. Tickets, $35-$75. Through March 6 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. Visit folger.edu/theatre or call 202-544-7077.