The shadow-puppet fairies in WSC Avant Bard’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are a striking lot. Oberon is a muscular figure with an angry thicket of hair. Titania’s attendant Cobweb dangles on a strand of spidery silk. Another attendant resembles a doll-size old woman. But Puck has the most expressive silhouette, with a fierce facial expression, a dancer’s torso, and knees that bend and crouch.
Those details pay off when Puck (Daven Ralston) morphs from a shadow into a three-dimensional sprite who bears a distinct resemblance to the two-dimensional version. The likeness between silhouette and humanoid is one of many rewarding touches in director Randy Baker’s interesting and sometimes beautiful, if flawed, production.
Taking note of lines in Shakespeare’s text that compare the fairy characters to shadows (Puck calls Oberon a “king of shadows,” for instance), Baker uses Indonesian- and Malaysian-inspired shadow puppetry to evoke the play’s magical beings. Southeast Asian influences also inform the production’s music: Providing underscoring, principally for the fairies’ escapades, performers sit at one side of the stage, playing various instruments in a gamelan orchestra. (James Bigbee Garver is the show’s music director.)
Looming against screens flooded with candy colors, the mysterious shapes and gliding movements of the shadow puppets (designed by Alex Vernon) lend a satisfying feeling of otherworldliness to the fairy scenes, and the dynamic and bristly gamelan sounds suggest the wild strangeness of the fairies’ magic. At the same time, the presence of the gamelan players — certain actors double in this capacity when not otherwise engaged — fits in nicely with the idea of the demand for entertainment at Theseus’s court. Set designer Debra Kim Sivigny has woven the shadow-puppet screens into scenery that evokes both woodland nooks and exotic palatial furnishings. Sivigny also designed the costumes, which integrate Asian-inspired touches into modern Western garb.
Ralston is enjoyably daring and mischievous as Puck, who slips out of shadow-land to interact more freely with the human world. (The fairy at one point is seen amusingly snacking on Doritos.) But the production’s chief acting asset is Zach Brewster-Geisz, who conjures up a wonderfully idiotic and self-aggrandizing Bottom, complete with hilarious walk-like-an-Egyptian movements in the play within the play.
The other rude-mechanical performances are less captivating but still fun. In particular, Toni Rae Salmi plays a suitably overwhelmed Quince, and Linda Bard exudes an amusing amount of stage fright as Snug. (Various mechanicals double as puppeteers and voices of the fairies; Salmi also plays Egeus.)
Some aspects of the production are less successful. Danny Cackley makes a compelling Lysander, but the lovers in general — Jenna Berk as Hermia, Robert Pike as Demetrius and Rachel Viele as Helena — don’t always display plausible chemistry. Viele plasters too much superficial affect onto Helena’s lines, and when Lysander and Demetrius square off as rivals for her affection, the tussling looks overly busy and sloppy.
Among other weaknesses, the chilly rapport between Theseus (a fine Christian R. Gibbs, who doubles as Oberon) and Hippolyta (Melissa Marie Hmelnicky, who also channels Titania) isn’t resolved in an entirely satisfying way; a sight gag involving Theseus’s hounds is milked to an extent that distracts from the storytelling; and there’s not quite enough preparation for the interesting surprise twist that ends the play.
Still, there’s much to like in the production, whose high-concept structure proves sturdy. When Theseus observes, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact,” you feel that you could add “the shadow-puppeteer” to his statement.
Wren is a freelance writer.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. Directed by Randy Baker. Lighting design, Katie McCreary; properties, Britney Mongold; assistant director, Jonelle Walker; choreographer, Elena Velasco; cultural consultant, Jeff Gan. About two hours, 15 minutes. Tickets: $30-$35 (with some pay-what-you-can performances). Through Feb. 7 at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-418-4808 or visit wscavantbard.org.