Review: ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ scores in High Park with unique choices Special

Posted Jul 14, 2018 by Jeff Cottrill
Tanja Jacobs knows how to make Shakespeare fun. Fresh off last year’s funny, colourful production of “Twelfth Night” in Toronto’s High Park, the director scores another winner with her quick-paced take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
The lovers in Shakespeare s  A Midsummer Night s Dream  -- from left  Amaka Umeh  David Patrick Flem...
The lovers in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- from left, Amaka Umeh, David Patrick Flemming, Jakob Ehman and Rachel Cairns -- run into supernatural romantic confusion, as Puck (Peter Fernandes, far right) looks on, in the new Canadian Stage production.
Dahlia Katz
It’s one of two Bard plays alternating in Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park this year, the other being Romeo and Juliet. Whereas Jacobs picked a 1970s disco theme for Twelfth Night – which worked unexpectedly well – this time, she’s set Dream in a Felliniesque, circus-like vision of 1950s Italy. (There’s even a throwaway reference to the “Asa Nisi Masa” chant from Fellini’s .) But what really carries this rendition of Dream, which opened last night, is the bold and offbeat choices she makes with her performers.
All the more impressive, since A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the more over-remounted plays of the Shakespeare canon – there’s been at least four Toronto productions in the last year and a half alone! – and one that Canadian Stage has done many times in the past. Almost everyone with a high-school level of familiarity with William Shakespeare should know the magical story of how forest sprites Oberon (Jason Cadieux) and Puck (Peter Fernandes) trick lovers Demetrius (Jakob Ehman), Hermia (Amaka Umeh), Lysander (David Patrick Flemming) and Helena (Rachel Cairns) into falling in love with the wrong people. That’s all thanks to Oberon’s “love-in-idleness,” a purple flower with a juice that makes sleeping people go super-thirsty for the first live creature they see when they awake from slumber.
So many productions turn this plot into little more than basic farce, but Jacobs adds something special. Here, the magical juice changes not only people’s objects of love and lust, but also their entire personalities. Flemming’s Lysander, who starts the play as an awkward geek with Colbert-style glasses, suddenly transforms into an overconfident alpha male who rips his shirt off at will, while Ehman’s initially stiff Demetrius suddenly adopts a dashing Spanish accent and becomes a classic Latin lover. (Think The Nutty Professor, but actually funny, since there’s no Jerry Lewis.)
Puck pulls the same stunt on Titania (Naomi Wright), Oberon’s wayward fairy-queen lover, to make her fall for amateur actor Bottom (Cadieux again), whose head has been transformed into “an ass’s nole.” Wright imbues the bewitched Titania with a frantic, sex-starved passion that isn’t far off from the way she played Olivia in Twelfth Night last year.
As good as Wright is, Cadieux matches her in both of his roles. His Bottom is a born ham, whose overbearing insistence on playing every role in Pyramus and Thisby tests the patience of Penny Quince (Jenny Young), the leader of his ragtag theatre company. Another unexpected standout in the cast is Cairns, who fully commits to Helena, playing her as a kind of whiny, needy teenager who’s prone to fits of rage and hysteria. Helena also appears to have serious boundary issues, judging from the way she physically lunges after Demetrius in the early scenes (making it understandable why he wants nothing to do with her).
Fernandes performs Puck as a Chaplinesque clown, complete with bowler hat and oversized pants, and Jacobs gives him a bizarre little running gag in which he keeps fetching food from inside the front of his pants – a pickle on a fork, a gelato cone, even a can of soda – and eats it immediately. He also begins the play with an unnecessary, but amusing, silent prologue in which he plays with his hat and loses it. Mac Fyfe, meanwhile, makes little impression as Theseus, the ruling Duke, but is hilarious as Flute, the inept actor who plays Thisby opposite Bottom’s Pyramus, using a silly falsetto voice in the role. (The play-within-a-play near the end is always the real comedic highlight in Dream, and it doesn’t disappoint in this version.)
Aside from the energetic cast and comedy, this Dream also moves along with song-and-dance interludes – especially those of Titania and her band of fairies, the latter clad in bright orange and blue circus outfits. Ken MacKenzie’s eye-catching set, full of barbershop red and white stripes, also adds to the visual flair of the production.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be produced too often, but even if you’re sick of the play, you’ll enjoy this staging. Once again, Jacobs helms a game cast with fine comic timing and makes Shakespeare as fun as it can be.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the High Park Amphitheatre in Toronto until September 2.