In a new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Folger Theatre, Bottom — portrayed by Holly Twyford (left, with Monique Robinson) — will finally get a little respect. (Teresa Wood) In a new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Folger Theatre, Bottom — portrayed by Holly Twyford (left, with Monique Robinson) — will finally get a little respect. (Teresa Wood)

For 412 years, poor Nick Bottom has been the butt of many a joke in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” An aspiring actor, he’s trying to rehearse a play in the forest and ends up being given a donkey head as part of a fairy prank. Often played by a Chris Farley type, Bottom takes plenty of falls, is openly ridiculed for his malapropisms and — worst of all — his play (within a play) turns out to be a major flop.

In a new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Folger Theatre, Bottom — portrayed by Holly Twyford — will finally get a little respect.

“Bottom is always played as a terrible actor who thinks he is a great actor,” director Aaron Posner says, “so we began to be interested in what would happen if Bottom thinks she’s a great actor and actually is really good.”

When Posner decided to make the character a woman, instead of the usual portly guy, he and Twyford began to wonder if it still made sense for her to lead a troupe of male laborers, as the text implies. “We thought, ‘Let’s make her a teacher at an all-girls school,’ ” Twyford says.

Channeling the artsy ladies from her youth, Twyford makes Bottom “like a really cool drama club teacher,” she says. This Bottom is kind and generous toward her students, even when she’s making a bit of a fool of herself.

The fairy Puck, another traditionally male character, is played by the sprightly Erin Weaver. Like Twyford’s Bottom, Weaver’s Puck also turned out to be a particularly warm and friendly variation of the character, Posner says.

“This is a really positive cast,” Posner says. “Their likability quotient is extremely high.”

Having a female Puck and Bottom (Posner adjusted the script’s pronouns) also brings new romantic elements to the play. For instance, when the fairy queen Titania falls for Bottom and Bottom doesn’t reciprocate, you might wonder if Bottom’s disinterest stems from being heterosexual. Of course, Titania is a fairy, and Bottom is half-donkey at that point, so these questions of gender and sexuality aren’t meant to be taken too seriously.

This is actually a fairly straightforward production, Posner says. It’s just that the actors’ impulses and some innovative casting led to surprising outcomes.

“There’s more loving curiosity or curiosity about loving in this production than most, I think,” Posner says.

Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE; through March 6, $35-$75.

An invitation for wackiness
Directors love taking Shakespeare’s fantastical comedy in weird directions. A few examples:

  • A 1911 London production made “Midsummer’s” lush forest setting more realistic by adding live rabbits that followed trails of grain onstage.
  • The Beatles performed a silly version of “Midsummer’s” play-within-the-play on British TV in 1964.
  • An influential 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production was set in a plain white box and had some characters perform on trapeze.

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