English director Tom Morris and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company brought the world “War Horse,” a sensation thanks in large part to the show’s graceful, stunningly realistic life-size horse puppets.
Elegance is upended, however, in the Morris and Handspring collaboration on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that is part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages theater festival through Sunday. There is only one equine presence here, a hilarious Rube Goldberg donkey contraption that appears when Bottom is turned into an ass — pants yanked down as the hapless character is paraded about half nude, cheeks to the ceiling.
That’s the elaborate, crude donkey that fairy queen Titania dotes on in this evergreen comedy of confused romance and magic. The romance has an angry edge in this production by Handspring and the Bristol Old Vic, where Morris is artistic director, and the magic is so rough that a lot of the spirit world is conjured by the simplest puppets imaginable — wooden planks held by the actors and waved around as if they’re floating.
On one level, it’s like watching kids play with blocks, and you can imagine cynical audiences looking back one day and saying, “Hey, remember that ‘Dream’ where the fairies were just, like, pieces of wood?” But it’s clear what Morris and Handspring, led by Adrian Kohler’s designs and constructions, have in mind with their partial puppets. They want us to fill in the blanks.
Puck, for instance, is made up of small disconnected spare parts — a wicker basket, a handsaw and enough pieces that it takes three actors to work them all (and to give voice to this notoriously wicked fairy). It’s an odd Puck, to be sure: funny at times, half-baked at others, and most enchanting when it flies apart and disappears.
Fairy king Oberon, whose vengeful trick leads to Titania’s infatuation with Bottom as an ass, is given superhuman scale with only two pieces — a large, serious-looking head and a giant mechanical puppet hand. David Ricardo-Pearce works them both as he acts the role; puppeteers are always visible here.
There are more, though apparently the production has shed some puppets since it premiered in England last year. There are no puppets worked by the mixed-up lovers Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander, for instance, despite pictures showing them on the Kennedy Center Web site. That four-way romantic tangle and the knockabout business of the rude mechanicals preparing a play are largely unencumbered by actors working dummies, dolls or tools.
Miltos Yerolemou has an especially ripe time as the hammy Bottom, while Naomi Cranston (Helena), Akiya Henry (Hermia), Alex Felton (Lysander) and Kyle Lima (Demetrius) agreeably woo and brawl. By and large, the acting is vigorous and humorous, even though this is often a dark and spiky show.
The back and sides of the stage are great black voids, and the set is marked by stepladders and tools, plus a huge ragged curtain and a loose wooden grid that looks vaguely like a ship’s ribbing. The costumes are so casual that the lovers wear jeans, plaid shirts and boots (Vicki Mortimer is credited with the show’s design). It’s plainly not meant to be a bright and frisky “Dream,” and at times it goes slow and leaves you wanting something more ebullient and tangible.
But it erupts with laughter and whimsy often enough, and at the end of Thursday night’s enthusiastically received performance in the Eisenhower Theater, a real match was made as British actor Christopher Keegan invited his American girlfriend to the stage and proposed. She said yes.
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Tom Morris. Puppet design, fabrication and direction, Handspring Puppet Company. Lighting design, Philip Gladwell; composer, Dave Price; sound design, Christopher Shutt; movement director, Andrew Dawson. With Saikat Ahamed, Colin Michael Carmichael, Fionn Gill, Saskia Portway and Lucy Tuck. Through Sunday at the Kennedy Center. About 2 hours and 45 minutes. Tickets $29-$49. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.