Shakespeare in High Park marks its 30th season this year with the comedy that launched this annual Toronto tradition in 1983, “A Midsummer Night's Dream”, but the new production takes many unusual risks – many of which pay off.
It's the eighth mounting of A Midsummer Night's Dream in High Park over the last three decades, and director Richard Rose aims for unconventionality in almost every aspect. From the modern Canadian setting – in what appears to be cottage country, although production notes call the approach “a unique Toronto twist” – to the sparse set, the focus on broad physical humour and even audience participation (a random spectator is invited onstage to play a lion), this fast-paced, high-energy Dream clearly wants to stand out from past versions.
At any rate, it's the first staging of Dream I've seen in which the main characters all end up stripped down to their undergarments.
A comedy of romance and misunderstandings, but with a supernatural bent, Dream is mainly a story of four mismatched lovers: Hermia (Sophia Kolinas) is in love with Lysander (Eric Morin) but ordered to marry Demetrius (Ali Momen) by her father, while her friend Helena (Sarah Sherman) is in love with Demetrius but spurned by him.
The foursome flees to the forest, where mischievous fairy Puck (Gil Garratt) complicates their desires with a magic juice that makes a sleeping person swoon over the first creature he or she sees upon waking. A subplot involves a band of amateur actors, led by Nick Bottom (Shaw Festival veteran John Cleland, who plays this clownish role marvelously straight), preparing a hilariously bad play for a royal wedding.
Like many Bard plays, Dream is universal enough that you can adapt it to just about any time period or location. Rose's direction shoots for an offbeat, contemporary feel right from the opening scene, staged as a press conference by Duke Theseus and his (here, reluctant) fiancée Hippolyta, in which both arrive by golf cart, bagpipe music plays and Mounties provide security. Rose also modernizes some characters in intriguing ways: whereas Demetrius and Lysander are virtually indistinguishable as personalities in Shakespeare's text, Morin plays Lysander as an '80s-style rocker dude, complete with red headband and AC/DC T-shirt, while Momen's Demetrius is an uptight nerd in a suit. Bottom, meanwhile, is transformed into a mustachioed, suburban real-estate agent clad in Herb Tarlek polyester, and the rest of his acting company is an amusing menagerie of Quebecois, Russian and Toronto accents.
What's most remarkable about this Dream is that it really moves. Rose imbues the blocking with so much farcical energy that the show's two-hour length just breezes by, and even non-fans of Shakespeare will likely enjoy it. The scene in which the four runaways confront each other in the forest is played as manically as any Three's Company episode, and the final act's play-within-a-play is full of comic gold. There are funny gags involving Bottom's acting troupe being transformed into fairies, dubbed with high-pitched voices. On the other hand, a running joke in which characters exit by leaping over the upstage hedge becomes predictable after a while. And the “ass's nole” on Bottom's head is strangely understated, not getting the broad laughs that it's meant to get.
To some degree, the women's performances steal the show from the men. Sherman is a standout – she shows not only a bright talent for physical comedy but also a natural comfort with the Elizabethan language. Kolinas is also good, and Tamara Podemski has a strong, solid presence as the fairy queen, Titania. But Garratt's Puck lacks much of the whimsy and playfulness that you expect from the character, and Dmitry Chepovetsky's stilted line readings as fairy king Oberon quickly become dull. (Chepovetsky also punctuates some of Oberon's dialogue with weird snorty sounds, for some reason.)
Another departure for this year's show – a departure that works surprisingly well – is the minimalist set. Rose eschews the elaborate scaffolding of past High Park productions and opts for a bare stage surrounded by hedges, with four large yellow flowers sprouting during the forest sequence and the occasional painted screen. You can see the surrounding park trees behind the stage, which gives the impression that the action really is happening in a forest at night.
There are bumps and unexpected curves in this year's Shakespeare in High Park, but the course of live theatre never did run smooth. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a fun show that will appeal to a lot of people. It runs until September 2 at the High Park Amphitheatre; pay-what-you-can ($20 suggested).