Arden's 'Midsummer Night's Dream' gets the delight right

Cast of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Arden.

A good Midsummer Night’s Dream is always worth seeing. Such is the Dream being staged through April 13 at the Arden. Director Matt Pfeiffer, cast, and crew have the right idea, and it makes for a delightful show.

This production mixes the traditional (Paige Hathaway's projecting stage is bare, with a two-stage gallery upstage, used for much fun) and the contemporary (as the two pairs of lovers, dressed all steampunk/Generation Next, relate in the middle-school-cafeteria-cum-Real Housewives of Atlanta mode of posturing, street gestures, insults, and explosive impatience). All is stripped down, chairs hanging on the walls, a ladder, a lightbulb on a pole. All the players double, making the most of a cast of 10.

And it has virtually no special effects -- other than music. All the actors also play, as in Shakespeare’s time. Also, as then, they first come on, sit down, and play among themselves popular tunes (as they did then), in this case, Andrew Bird, Rufus Wainwright, the White Stripes. A plucked violin, a strummed guitar, or a spray of bar chimes may indicate magic, or a change of heart, or moonlight. To put Demetrius asleep, Mary Tuomanen (a woman all the time everywhere doing everything) as Puck (hair dyed electric cobalt teal) hits a single note on the piano. And that’s all you need.

What I miss in most Dreams is clear characterization among Lysander, Helena, Demetrius, and Hermia. But Sean Close, Rachel Camp, Brandon J. Pierce, and Taysha Marie Canales, respectively, make sure we’d never take one for another. Close plays Lysander with a Jack Davenport-type wackiness in shorts and docksiders, and Camp plays Helena as athletic, self-pitying, and side-splittingly frustrated. Pierce is at first puzzled then love-steamrollered as Demetrius, and Canales is all in, zero-sum, as Hermia. In other productions, I sometimes feel a drop in energy when the lovers take over the play around Act 4, but here it’s a high point. There are no words for the way Lysander and Demetrius exit for a fight that never happens.

The other high point: Dan Hodge, playing Bottom as a guy who thinks he’s great whatever he does. Often played as only a bumbler, he is a bumbler here, too, but he doesn’t know it. The joke will always be on him, but it’ll never hurt because he’ll never know. Whether bossing around Peter Quince during the rehearsal of Pyramus and Thisbe or as an ass in bed with Titania, he’s sure he’s at the top of his game.

Katharine Powell as Titania and Dan Hodge as Bottom. Photo: Mark Garvin.

It all worked. Know how I know? To the left of the stage sat a large contingent from Germantown Academy, and before long they led the audience in enjoyment and understanding. I have seldom seen a more dependable gauge of a play’s success. They clapped at the pop tunes, oohed at kisses, gasped at contemporary-sounding insults (Helena’s slap at Hermia, “She was a vixen at school,” stunned), and totally got the intricate, crazy love-switching. They laughed when, looking down from the second-story gallery at the lovers running around, Lindsay Smiling as Oberon and Tuomanen as Puck get stoned on a hookah.

Delight was the tenor of the evening. Love is nuts, magical, irrational, dangerous, life-defining. We are reminded that at one time or another, we all have been asses in bed. After the hysterical play, and the triple marriage, this Dream ends with a hearty, assured sense of well-being, of things as they should be. It’s hard to get it right, but this Dream did.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Through April 13 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd St. Tickets: $36-$15. Information: 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.