Cheerfully energetic but not quite their typical richly-conceived fare, the Folger Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has its moments — just not quite enough of them.
It couldn’t have been easy moving from the intimate surrounds of the currently-indisposed Folger Theatre to the hanger-sized expanse of the National Building Museum, but it’s not just the unwieldly space that saps the production of the vision it needs to fly.
The first problem is, undoubtedly, the choice to mike the actors. It may seem essential considering the acoustics of the place, but the sound quality is poor enough to lose some of the articulation, and the yells and whistles are downright jarring.
Not only is the language dulled, but even the witty updates — surely a feature of an accessible production like this — can also be hard to catch. Audiences used to the vagaries of amplified productions may not care, but anyone expecting the Folger’s usual precision, clarity, and passion for Shakespeare’s language, will likely find it an unwelcome adjustment.
Such technicalities aside, the bigger wobble here is the general lack of cohesion. Midsummer‘s joy — and also its challenge — is the mingling of three worlds: the semi-sinister realm of the fairies; the quartet of amusingly star-crossed lovers; and the buffoonish villagers determined to put on a play.
Tying these worlds together needs a powerful eye, and director Victor Malana Maog never quite captures a consistent mood.
Taking the play down to its bare bones at 90 minutes is certainly part of it, but it’s the vibe that feels disjointed, making things feel more like a whirlwind tour than the immersive experience the play needs. Some of this is the emphasis on being in-the-moment: there are contemporary clothes and manners; a bit of edgy Lil Nas energy, and a certain jumpy exuberance.
But without a strong connecting spirit, nothing really unifies the choices, and the play comes across as more a series of vignettes than the telling of a tale.
As plot-driver and narrator, this was the moment for a powerhouse Puck, but as appealing as Danaya Esperanza’s mischievous fairy may be, her sly amusement makes her more bystander than cornerstone.
One of the biggest charms of Midsummer is its fairy world, and costume designer Olivera Gajic does deliver some visually exciting costuming in King Oberon and consort Titania. But their stunning and cleverly used costumes are dampened by the rendering of the rest of the fairies.
Looking and acting like they’ve raided the dress-up box, they clownishly lower the denominator. Surely another example of Maog’s attempt to keep things relatable, but, without some genuine wit, it won’t do much to inspire a new generation of theatergoers.
There is more unevenness in the ensemble. Rotimi Agbabiaka offers a star turn as the fabulously charismatic (and genuinely funny) pansexual Oberon (and Theseus), leaving one to wonder how much more interesting this production might have been as a burlesque.
But as visually impressive as Nubia M. Monk’s Queen Titania (and Hippolyta) is, she remains too imperiously removed to create a connection.
The four young lovers are the fruity center of any Midsummer and here, there is just too little chemistry and, in some cases, a bit too much “acting.” The strongest is Renea S. Brown as Helena, offering a good command of the language and a gravitas that is wasted on the endless hither and thither she (and everyone else) does to use the space.
Lilli Hokama delivers a physically-charged Hermia, but she can lose some of the poetry in her drive to keep her woman accessible in an “I-yell-a-lot” kind of way. As Lysander, Hunter Ringsmith brings an appealing demeanor but occasionally over-eggs his Shakespeare, while, as Demetrius, Bryan Barbarin does a compelling job of embodying an every-guy though he must strive over the mike for the language.
As for the village players — they might as well have had a different director. Sure, they are meant to be their own microcosm, but their scenes truly move to the beat of a different drummer.
They are also another mix of choices, bringing some of the corniest moments, but also — especially in the play-within-a-play — some of the funniest. Jacob Ming-Trent is a charismatic Bottom, especially when director Maog finally lets him loose at the end. Another stand-out is a painfully under-used John Floyd as Flute, who also comes into his own during the play’s finale.
Despite the energy of the performances, another challenge speaks again to the size of the venue. In the quest to use and manage the space, movements feel over-planned, the choreography unfocused, and the multiple staircases too self-consciously employed.
Case in point is an interlude where the young lovers do a floor-covering dance that, committed as it is, comes across more like mock-serious antics in a rec room than an evocation of complicated love. The scene in which they grapple WWE-style for each other’s affections works better, and is even amusing, but it’s another moment undercut by the competing choice of having the women strip to their bras. It isn’t edgy, just out of step.
For all its promise of visual and story-telling fun, this Midsummer proves it’s harder to pull off than it looks, especially in a production that never quite sees the forest for the trees.
The Folger’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through Aug. 28 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. Tickets start at $20. Visit www.folger.edu or call 202-544-7077.
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