By Kimberly Rau
Gamm closes its 37th season with William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” At this point, Gamm has done quite a bit of Shakespeare, and it’s always an impressive undertaking. No matter who directs, Shakespeare’s words and actions become relevant and meaningful despite the complex plot lines and antiquated language. This bit of alchemy is no exception.
Director Fred Sullivan Jr., who staged a truly wonderful Winter’s Tale in 2016, is back at the helm for this beloved Shakespeare tale of love and trickery, set in ancient Athens. For Sullivan, the setting is very important to the story, so he hasn’t sought to modernize it, as many are inclined to do.
“I have no idea who Theseus or Hippolyta are if they costumed in sneakers or an evening gown,” Sullivan says in the program notes. “When [Shakespeare’s] faeries fight they actually change the weather, so they’re more like the Greek gods Shakespeare dreamed about in school and not English garden faeries…and the ancient laws of Athens are brutal. That’s why the moments of poetry and grace are so profound. Every detail makes the story more intense. Why get too clever?”
Sullivan and I will have to agree to disagree on the last sentence, because this is a very clever production indeed, traditional setting included. Subtle set devices such as a moon that turns to be a blood red Athenian coin for scenes at Theseus’ court are powerful reminders that the laws of nature and the laws of man are forever in battle with one another.
And speaking of battles, Sullivan’s gender-blind casting for faerie royals Oberon (Deb Martin) and Titania (Michael Liebhauser) lends an unexpected new energy to things. This is particularly evident when the faerie king is watching Helena (Nora Eschenheimer) chase after her erstwhile lover, Demetrius (Erik Robles), and boggling that someone with Helena’s chaotic energy could ever be satisfied with someone so callous. Martin’s chemistry with mischief-maker and henchman faerie Puck (Marc Pierre) is also notable, as these two powerhouse actors play off each other beautifully.
Other performances of note: Angelique C’Dina and Michael Underhill as Hermia and Lysander, the pretty-but-not-too-bright lovers who attempt to escape Athens to be married. (Pro tip: Don’t tell your unhinged best friend your plans.) Tony Estrella as Nick Bottom, the prima donna community theater actor whose death in the play-within-a-play will have you screaming. Brandon Whitehead as that play’s director, Peter Quince, who is really questioning his choice of hobbies by the time the show goes up. The incredibly scary (in the best way) faeries. The bumbling mechanicals. Really, this is the epitome of an ensemble show, and everyone knows it, working together to weave multiple story lines into a beautiful tapestry.
“Midsummer” runs two and a half hours with intermission, but it goes by in a blink. “Lord what fools these mortals be,” Puck mocks in the first act, but in his final soliloquy, he’s cajoling us to give him grace: if this play offends you, he offers, don’t worry, it was all a dream. And if you weren’t offended, then please, won’t you clap for us?
The applause was thunderous.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through May 29 at the Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at gammtheatre.org or by calling 401.723.4266. Masks and proof of vaccination or negative Covid test are required.