It can be far too easy for a director to forget that “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a comedy. After all, the most well-known plotline from one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays is about love—and love is serious.
The basics are as follows: Helena loves Demetrius. Demetrius loves Hermia. Hermia and Lysander love each other. Hermia and Lysander also have a whole “forbidden love” thing going for them since Hermia’s father wants her to marry Demetrius. They sneak away into the forest, followed by the other two. There, a magic potion makes them fall in love with the wrong people.
With a script that has been edited down almost ruthlessly, a cast that is both talented and hilarious, and a stunning and ethereal production design, this version…is made for anyone…breezy and joyful…
Taken on its own, that plot could rival Shakespeare’s great romances. Indeed, many productions do fall into the trap of treating the lovers’ plot seriously and saving the comedy for the two subplots—the theatre troupe made up of laborers putting on a farcical production for the duke and the fairy king and his queen, Oberon and Titania, in the middle of a feud.
There are two problems with that interpretation: a) The lovers are funny, albeit in subtler ways than the other characters, and b) as the title suggests, this is a dream—or at the very least, should feel like one. Luckily, Folger Theatre’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as directed by Victor Malana Maog, understands both of those things.
The world that has been created for this production is particularly impressive. The show is performed inside the National Building Museum on a temporary stage called The Playhouse, which sits inside the Great Hall, a grand and historic ballroom. You enter into this space via a tunnel. Upon seeing the gorgeous set by Tony Cisek, it really feels like you’ve been transported into a dreamworld. Cisek, who was also in charge of creating The Playhouse, has designed a set that blends beautifully into the surrounding architecture of the museum. Lighting design by Yael Lubetzky does much the same, making the production feel much larger than it actually is.
Of course, there’s also the dream within the play which is communicated by lighting, the stunning and creative costumes by Olivera Gajic, and by double-casting many of the characters. The duke and queen double as Oberon and Titania, the theatre troupe double as the fairies, and Hermia’s father doubles as Puck. It has a “Wizard of Oz”-like effect of emphasizing the other-worldly nature of play. Double-casting for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” isn’t a novel idea, but with this ensemble of such versatile actors—Rotimi Agbabiaka as Theseus/Oberon and Nubia M. Monks as Hippolyta/Titania are standouts in this respect—it’s particularly effective.
The rest of the main cast offer strong performances as well. Diverse both in terms of representation and acting styles, they all bring something different to the table but mesh together onstage. It makes for some exciting and interesting takes on well-known characters.
Most importantly, this cast knows how to have fun. The comedic timing, both physical and verbal, are impeccable. They’re also simultaneously well-versed in delivering Shakespeare for modern audiences and know when it’s okay to depart from the faithful interpretations and delivery. Yes, sometimes that means inserting contemporary language. Unlike some productions that are more careless about this choice, here, it always feels well-earned. The vast majority of these are done by Jacob Ming-Trent, who plays a hilarious Bottom. He has a particular talent for fluidly moving between Shakespeare’s verse and modern language so casually, that I found myself questioning which was which at times.
There’s also plenty of music and dance in this production which keeps the show light and helps communicate some key relationships and plot points. Most of the music and dance blend well into the overall production. Although one dance sequence between the lovers is perhaps too traditional for a production like this, and ends up feeling disconnected from the larger aesthetic of the show.
Nevertheless, there was never a moment during Folger Theatre’s production that I was not entertained. With a script that has been edited down almost ruthlessly, a cast that is both talented and hilarious, and a stunning and ethereal production design, this version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is made for anyone including, and especially for, those who still associate Shakespeare with those dull plays they had to read in high school.
In fact, Folger Theatre’s production is so breezy and joyful that by the time the cast took their bows, I found that this was a dream from which I wasn’t quite ready to awake.
Running time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 10 and up.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs through August 28, 2022 at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20001. To purchase tickets, click here. Numerous, related events are connected with this production. For more information, click here. COVID-19 Health and Safety: Proof of vaccination and masks are required.