- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

The Bard sheds doublet and hose for satin slip dresses and finger waves in the glammed up, 1930s-style “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” now at the Folger Theatre.

Hollywood figures prominently in director Joe Banno’s delectable art deco fantasy, specifically the Tinseltown that produced Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, such blond bombshells as Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, the sophisticated leading men John Barrymore and Adolphe Menjou, and those escapist screwball comedies that were as notable for the breathless clip of the dialogue as for the gorgeous costumes and sleek sets.

Erhard Rom’s sets for “Midsummer” evoke such streamlined sumptuousness that it’s like living in a penthouse at the Chrysler Building, and Kate Turner-Walker’s body-conscious dresses and men’s formal wear are so exquisitely tailored that they evoke the heyday of legendary Hollywood fashion designer Adrian.

“Midsummer” takes place in Athens and an enchanted wood — not the MGM back lot — and its cast includes the usual Shakespearean mix of nobles and rustics, lovers and rivals, with the otherworldly addition of fairy queens and kings and their charmed minions. These spirits wreak mischief and magic on two sets of young lovers, Hermia (Briel Banks) and Lysander (Marcus Kyd) and Helena (Stephanie Burden) and Demetrius (Tim Getman), who flee to the forest to escape from Athenian restrictions. There, they are bedeviled by Puck (Kate Eastwood Norris), the scrappy and sometimes addled aide de camp to fairy king Oberon (John Lescault). Oberon, annoyed that his wife Titania (Deborah Hazlett) has become distracted from her marital duties by a changeling boy, uses the juice from magical flowers to hoodwink his wife into thinking she’s madly in love with an ass (David Marks, whose hiccupy bray in the role is alone worth the price of a ticket), a working class bloke named Nick Bottom who gets lost in the wild while rehearsing for a production of “Pyramus and Thisbe” that he and the other rubes are putting on for the gentry.

As much as this “Midsummer” looks like something Noel Coward would whip up for Gertrude Lawrence, Mr. Banno also borrows from more contemporary sources: His ironic use of 1930s hit parade ditties lip-synced by the actors was evocatively employed by English dramatist and filmmaker Dennis Potter in “The Singing Detective” (1986) and “Pennies From Heaven” (1978). Here, the idea of love and happiness being merely an illusion is conveyed by characters suddenly bursting into song while simultaneously finding themselves as fleet of foot as one of the Nicholas Brothers and surrounded by a phalanx of chorine cuties.

Successful in small doses, this device grows tiresomely predictable after a while — although in act two, flagging spirits are revived by Catherine Flye. To her role as Peter Quince, the gung-ho director of the rustic play, she brings the rubbery finesse and exquisite timing of a born comedienne to a goofball novelty number about love and laundry drudgery that explodes into a fantasy sequence that includes a balletic interlude and actor Ralph Cosham executing a comically dainty tap dance.

As Titania and Oberon (and their mortal counterparts, Theseus and Hippolyta), Mr. Lescault and Miss Hazlett delightfully evoke the inspired bickering of William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. Miss Banks looks so much like Katharine Hepburn in the 1930s you expect to hear the icon’s clipped New England cadences, but, other than looks, she fails to make an impression. However, as the plain Jane sidekick Helena, Miss Burden packs the wallop and brass of famous Hollywood second bananas like Joan Blondell.

Miss Eastwood Norris makes a splendid Puck. With her blond corkscrew curls and racy lingerie, she bears a physical resemblance to Carole Lombard, although her frantic mugging and attempts at breakneck comedy are pure Looney Tunes. The crew of rustics is far more relaxed in their revels, led by the splendidly agile Mr. Marks, who plays the earthbound ass and the nimble, Jackie Gleason-esque Nick Bottom with equal aplomb.

***

WHAT: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 26.

TICKETS: $32 to $50

PHONE: 202/544-7077

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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