By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
There is an adage well known to pharmacists and those familiar with shampoo. The directions “repeat when necessary” come to mind for a great many things, but with the current joint production of the NOLA Project and the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” it’s the first time they’ve been applied to a play.
But this production, set again in the Sidney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, brings about the very best of what The NOLA Project does, incorporating contemporary music, whimsy, and relevance to the words of the immortal Bard of Stradford-on-Avon. Directed by associate artistic director Brittany N. Williams, this brilliant production compares quite favorably with the previous version that moved audiences to different areas of the sculpture garden.
This time the audience stays put as the characters from within the royalty of Athens and those enchanting fairies of the outlying woods come to them. The performances are all smile worthy with Matthew Thompson and Monica Harris playing the twin roles of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania, respectively.
Theseus, a fabled Athenian warrior king, and Hippolyta, an Amazonian princess and demi-god are about to be wed. It is their desire to celebrate their wedding with the upper echelon of Athens society and they are inclined to invite the warring couples of Hermia (Alexandria Miles) and Lysander (Khiry Armstead) and Demetrius (Matthew Raetz) and Helena (J’aiLa Price) to their nuptials. They are in love, just not with each other.
Ashley Ricord Santos, who is always spot on as an actor, plays Hermia’s mother, Egea, although Shakespeare originally wrote the part to be that of Egeus and for the parent role to be the head of the household and father. Regardless, Egea demands that her daughter Hermia must marry Demetrius, despite her being in love with Lysander. The alternatives for Hermia are death or exile to a nunnery.
Shakespeare makes it clear that Theseus and Titania, the queen of the fairies, have been involved while Oberon, the king of the fairies, has also had a dalliance with Hippolyta. But Oberon and Titania’s current quarrel is not over jealousy; it is over an unseen boy being guarded by Titania. Oberon has demanded he be made to serve in his court, but Titania resists him, having promised the boy’s mother she would protect him.
Oberon sets into motion a plan to impose his will over Titania and he employs Puck, one of his mischievous fairies, to carry out a plan for the king’s amusement. Played by a very enthusiastic and physically present Alex Martinez Wallace, Puck enchants the queen and the couples with a love potion that comes from a flower he applies to them as they sleep. Upon awakening, they are to fall hopelessly in love with the first person they encounter.
A group of Athenians are intent to perform a play of their own device at the wedding reception for Theseus and Hippolyta. The ragtag group of ridiculous performers are led by Peter Quince, played by the delightful A.J. Allegra. James Bartelle performs in the role of egotistical Nick Bottom, the actor whose hubris convinces him he is so gifted that he can play all roles at all times.
The clever Keith Claverie tackles the role of Francis Flute, while Natalie Boyd and Megan Whittle each give a proper comedic touch to the players Tom Snout and Robin Starveling, respectively.
Reid Williams and Tessa Dufrene appear on stilts far above the other fairies and Athenian players in the sculpture garden. Their circus and puppetry skills add an additional layer to this production, while the costumes by Kaci Thomassie, assisted by Bridget Boyle, magnificently capture the ethereal spirit of the comedy.
When the troupe of players finally gets to perform for the entertainment of Theseus and Hippolyta, they choose the improbable comedy and lamentable tragedy of Pyramis and Thisbe. The result is predictably hilarious, even after being updated 400 years hence.
Director Brittany N. Williams ably shepherds this return of a favorite work by Shakespeare and is supported by her creative team that also includes Ryan Wiles on sound design and both Kaci Thomassie and Bridget Ann Boyle providing the props. This is another indication why we come to expect the very best in theatre when it comes to The NOLA Project. Indeed, there are but a few theatre companies nationwide that are as capable of making Shakespeare so very relevant and fun.
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2 and one-half hours) continues at the Sidney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art in partnership with The NOLA Project through May 28. Performances are Wednesday through Friday and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Blankets and chairs are encouraged with reserved seats for selected ticket holders. For tickets click here.