Shake! Shake! Shake!

In the 400 years since Shakespeare entertained Elizabethan England with histories, tragedies, and comedies, his works have been updated, translated, elaborated, extemporized, bowdlerized, and set to music and dance. Macbeth went sci-fi. The Merry Wives of Windsor outwit Falstaff in 1950s suburbia. Women played Hamlet. And a Wild West version of The Taming of the Shrew featured an interracial Kate and Petruchio. The antics of A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of the two comedies now being performed in the Florida Playwrights' Theater's second annual Shakespeare Festival (it plays in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing), seem particularly susceptible to lavish interpretations: In the past, Titania and Puck have swung from trapezes, Oberon's been played by a Russian ballerina, and the whole affair's been turned into an opera. Such liberties don't appeal to the folks at Florida Playwrights' Theater, however. Their current productions benefit from straightforward direction, in which Shakespeare's glorious language takes priority over ornate sets or overtly modern renderings.

A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing share signature Shakespearean touches: multiple plots; mistaken identities; characters who spy in order to uncover truths, deceptions, betrayals; and roles ranging from royalty to working-class clowns. In each play, love is mocked even as it is celebrated, and everyone gets married in the end. Yet the comedies could never be mistaken for one another. Much Ado features the brilliant verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick, lovers who trade insults even as they fall into each other's arms, while Midsummer journeys into the recesses of a dream realm where longings, masked by day, find fulfillment. In the event you have time to see only one of the festival's offerings, make it Midsummer. A more complex and interesting play in general, it's also more engagingly directed.

A Midsummer Night's Dream begins stiffly, with Theseus, Duke of Athens (Paul Thomas), and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Julia Jimenez), bemoaning the hours until they are to marry. But the pace picks up with the entrance of Egeus (Matt Regan), who flings his daughter, Hermia (Lissa Grossman), at the Duke's feet. Egeus has promised Hermia to Demetrius (Rob de los Reyes), but she loves Lysander (Todd Durkin). The Duke gives Hermia until the next new moon to choose the right husband; accordingly, she and Lysander plot their escape together. Demetrius pursues them through the woods, with Helena (Christina Rumore), obsessively in love with him, hot on his heels.

No ordinary woods, this fecund forest is inhabited by manipulative, hedonistic fairies and ruled by Oberon (also played by Paul Thomas), King of the Fairies, and Titania (also Jimenez), his queen, with whom he's having his own relationship woes. When Oberon orders his courtier, Puck (Paul Waxman), to sprinkle love potions around, promiscuous shenanigans begin.

Often interpreted as an airy romp through the pastoral Athenian countryside, A Midsummer Night's Dream is more accurately "a most truthful, brutal, and violent play," as Jan Kott writes in his probing critical study, Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Using the forest as a metaphor for our innermost, unsocialized selves, and the love potions as the catalyst for releasing inhibitions, Shakespeare explores the bestiality at the core of human sexual yearning. By paralleling the fates of four couples, he parodies love, sex, virginity, and the fickleness of desire. And he takes a poke at the artifice of theater in a subplot involving an amateur acting troupe whose lead actor, Bottom the Weaver (Kerry Sensenbach), is transformed by the devilish Puck into an ass. A seemingly lighthearted frolic becomes a wickedly precise study of identity, a situational hall of mirrors that relentlessly duplicates itself.

While director Todd Fisher never goes full-tilt-boogie into the danger zone of the truly erotic, neither does he discourage his actors' lust or the ruthlessness such lust inspires. Under the spell of the love liquor, Titania mounts Bottom, the ass (an animal the Elizabethans saw as the embodiment of phallic potency), with unabashed lasciviousness. Influenced by the same drug, Todd Durkin's Lysander wakes up downright horny for Helena -- and the actor doesn't sugarcoat his violent hatred for his former love, Hermia, when she tries to win him back. Meanwhile Hermia (Lissa Grossman) turns her temper on Helena with a vengeance when she decides her friend has done her wrong. By the time Sensenbach delivers Bottom's no-man-will-ever-believe-the dream-I-had soliloquy in a perfect blend of befuddlement and awe, tempers have quieted, but there's no denying that, like the other mortals who spent the night in the forest, Bottom has been irrevocably changed by the instincts unleashed.

Director Fisher disappoints only in his uninspired vision of the fairies. "What sinks most productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream is the notion of a fairy as a nineteenth-century silly thing," writes international wunderkind director Peter Sellars. Indeed, instead of the powerful magical forces they might be, these electric-Kool-Aid sprites skip around the stage with tie-dyed giddiness. Paul Waxman, as Puck, the most significant of the fairy coterie, handles his lines well. But he and Fisher fail to conceive of Puck as anything more than Oberon's silly manservant gone astray; Waxman's Puck forgets to be cunning.

Still, the tight ensemble gallops through two and a half hours, rendering Shakespeare not only understandable but very funny. Not one performance slows down the evening. Of particular note are Grossman, Durkin, Rumore, and de los Reyes as the foolish mortal lovers, Sensenbach as Bottom, Jimenez as Titania, Christopher Railey as a member of the acting troupe, and Matt Regan, underused in the small role of Egeus.

As for Much Ado About Nothing, while it starts promisingly and features a few interesting performances, Angela Thomas's direction lacks the subtlety necessary to keep the production from growing tedious. The action begins on a high note as Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Christopher Railey), Count Claudio (Rob de los Reyes), and Signore Benedick (Paul Thomas) return from battle to Messina (Italy) to stay with Leonato, the Governor (Kerry Sensenbach). Claudio and Hero (Leonato's daughter, played by Shannon Emerick) fall in love and court each other in a conventional manner; conversely, Hero's cousin, Beatrice (Teresa Turiano), and Benedick woo by one-upping each other with pointed barbs, both insisting they will never be caught dead submitting to the repressive institution of marriage. The comedy's pithy tone turns dark when Claudio wrongly accuses Hero (at the altar, of all places!) of having betrayed him; in this production, however, the mood becomes anxious instead of dark. As the malapropism-spouting Constable Dogberry, Matt Regan enlivens the proceedings while simultaneously exposing the plot against Hero in time to save the day.

Actors in minor roles in A Midsummer Night's Dream play major roles here. Although everyone rises to the challenge of learning the lines to two Shakespearean comedies, in Much Ado About Nothing the ensemble seems exhausted by the process. After a while, the actors walk on-stage, recite their lines, and walk off, as if everyone's dutifully waiting for the play's betrayal to untangle itself and the postponed weddings to take place. Paul Thomas's solid performance as Benedick provides an exception. Although the actor relies too heavily on exaggerated facial tics to convey his character's confused passions, by the end of the play he has transformed Benedick from a prickly bachelor to a mature man capable of committing to love. In counterpoint to Benedick, Teresa Turiano's nervous Beatrice slings the requisite affronts but never seems to relax fully into her role. Shannon Emerick provides a nice surprise as Hero, bringing dignity and strength to a character who is usually milquetoast-bland.

Florida Playwrights' Theatre continues to bring Shakespeare to undeniable life in its small storefront theater -- no small feat for American actors largely untrained in the Shakespearean tongue. I look forward to seeing the company's version of what everyone in the theater world superstitiously calls "the Scottish play" this coming February.


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