- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2001

So many productions of Shakespeare's comedy of discombobulated lovers have been staged lately that we seem to be in perpetual midsummer.

So, with a crummy attitude, I trotted into Shenandoah Shakespeare Express' "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Although the plot and most of the dialogue are as familiar to me as my frown lines, the troupe's take on the fantasy-romance was so energetic and inspired that I found myself enjoying the play anew.

The pleasure in viewing "Midsummer" was enhanced by seeing many children and teen-agers in the audience laughing and having a blast. Their enjoyment was clear, not only because of their enthusiasm, but because the Shenandoah company's motto is, "We do it with the lights on," meaning that the audience is not sitting in the anonymous dark during the production.

This takes a little getting used to, but after a while, the audience gets into the give-and-take spirit of connecting with the actors, who seem to get as much of a charge from looking at the theatergoers' faces as the audience does from gazing at theirs.

The cast of 11 actors (doubling up on roles) has a freewheeling, daredevil spirit, which takes much of the starch out of what might be perceived as daunting Elizabethan theater. Director Murray Ross approaches "Midsummer" as a gaudy mishmash of styles ranging from doo-wop and punk to New Age and 1980s new wave music.

Before the show begins, a variation of the Village People — who later turn out to be the rustics putting on a production of "Pyramus and Thisbe" for the wedding of Theseus (played by David Loar) to Hippolyta (Alexandra Cremer) — entertain the audience with street-corner harmonies. The show starts with an a cappella version of "Tainted Love" by the 1980s group Soft Cell.

The young lovers, Hermia (Amanda McRaven) and Lysander (Michael Newman), and their sidekicks, Helena (Brandy Mettert) and Demetrius (Mark Allan Jeter), sport that geek-preppy "Happy Days" look with khakis, red letter sweaters, bobby socks and black Buddy Holly glasses. That is, until they flee to the woods and fall prey to the mischief of the fairies, which causes their clothes to fall away magically until they are reduced to their skivvies.

The Athenian woods are busy. Aside from the lovers on the lam, the rustics — Nick Bottom (Aaron Lyons), Peter Quince (Kenneth Maxwell), Francis Flute (James Hurdle) and Snug (Leah Roy) — rehearse their bumptiously humble play in the forest. All are subject to fairy magic, especially a love potion dispensed by Puck (James Ricks), the chief fairy to Oberon (Mr. Loar), king of the fairies.

Oberon wants to teach his wayward queen, Titania (Miss Cremer), a lesson, so he has Puck dispense a potion that will make her fall in love with the first thing she sees — in this case, Mr. Bottom, who also has the indignity of having been turned into a donkey.

Oberon also decides to tamper with the lovers, asking Puck to enchant Demetrius so he switches his ardor from Hermia to Helena. But he flubs, and now both Demetrius and Lysander are warm for Helena's form, much to the consternation of Hermia.

After a slew of misinterpreted signals, mismatched couples and mistaken identities, the fairies set everything right in time for Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. The nuptials are well worth waiting for because the troupe gets members of the audience to participate in the rustics' play — they assume the parts of a wall and moonlight — and contagious mayhem ensues.

The actors encourage and also gently make fun of the volunteers from the audience. Sometimes, the rustics' play can fall flat, but in this case, the results make you pretty much helpless with laughter.

Shenandoah Shakespeare Express has energy and invention to spare, starting with Miss McRaven as a fireplug of fury as Hermia, who becomes simply a riot of physical comedy when she finds herself the spurned lover. Miss Mettert is a terrific foil as Helena, a second banana who suddenly becomes a hottie. What is endearing is that Miss Mettert has Helena not knowing how to handle all of this male attention. She is hilarious and miffed.

The love play between Helena and the newly smitten Lysander is terrific — Mr. Newman is as gaga as a cartoon character with a boomeranging heart; she's skeptical and squirming. Miss McRaven also is a master of slapstick in her scenes with the disdainful Mr. Newman, literally climbing all over him to get him to notice her.

Mr. Ricks is sexy and insinuating as the naughty Puck, while Mr. Loar is a regally amused and commanding Oberon.

As fairies, the actors are weird when they should be curiously charming, but Mr. Hurdle, Miss Roy and Mr. Maxwell are splendidly yokel-ish as the rustics.

The troupe sometime lapses into singsong rhymes and trips over the dialogue from time to time, but for childlike fun, its eclectic and casual take on "Midsummer" is a welcome spot of warmth during the dregs of February.{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"WHERE: Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SEWHEN: 2 p.m. Feb. 24 and 25; 8 p.m. Feb. 24; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25, 27, 28 , March 1; and 8 p.m. March 2TICKETS: $20 to $30PHONE: 202/544-7077 or www.folger.edu

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