As I was exiting the performance space at Open Book last Thursday, I found myself dodging a discarded costume. It was the intermission of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and upon reflection, the cast-aside costume wasn't much of a surprise. Ten Thousand Things uses eight actors for all of the roles in this Shakespearean comedy, so there were plenty of quick changes to be made.
Most of the actors wind up playing roles in each of the worlds of the play: the love-struck denizens of the court of Athens; the rough Rude Mechanicals rehearsing and presenting their play within the play; and the fairy courts of Oberon and Titania.
What might otherwise be a dizzying, revolving door of actors is rendered clear and focused both by Sonya Berlovitz's clever and distinct costumes — flowing dressing gowns for the Athenians, rough jackets and tool pouches for the Mechanicals; torn and raven-black outfits for the fairies (called goblins here) — and through the hard work of the company.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM Open Book 1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis Through Nov. 3; 1-800-838-3006
Director Michelle Hensley centers her version on the two lordly couples: Theseus and Hippolyta in Athens, and Oberon and Titania in the woods. Both are couples in conflict. Theseus has forced his proud bride-to-be into the marriage. Oberon is willing to go to any length to take possession of the child in the care of his wife.
All of this male-dominated conflict is tempered by casting. The same two actors — Sun Mee Chomet and Gavin Lawrence — play the couple in both worlds; however, their roles are reversed. While Lawrence plays the headstrong Theseus in one world, he explores a different side as Titania in the other. And while Chomet fights against the domination of her forced groom as Hippolyta, she gets to be pure testosterone and guile as Oberon, even getting to use one of the steel trees on the set as a phallus that would make the most aggressively masculine Athenian blush.
Most of the remaining cast get to do triple duty in each of the worlds, where gender roles continue to be delightfully torn asunder. Hermia loves Lysander, for instance, and not only are both characters played by women — Brittany Bradford and Anna Sundberg — both are portrayed as women. That gives the conflict at the Athenian court some extra bite and adds a delightful layer in the forest, when a spell gone wrong turns the attention of Lysander to Helena (Mo Perry), who is in love with Demitrius (Kurt Kwan) who ... suffice it to say, madness happens in the moonlight.
Where these four actors really get to dig in is during the Rude Mechanicals scenes. These everyday folks are preparing a play to present at the Duke's wedding. Their lack of talent is second only to their enthusiasm, especially that of Bottom (more on her in a moment.) The fun with gender continues here. While Kwan is the only male in the group, he gets the role of Thisbe, the only woman in the little play. It's a role Kwan takes on with full aplomb, strutting around like Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards.
And here we come upon the two signature roles in A Midsummer Night's Dream: Bottom and Puck. Elise Langer ramps up the Bottom-ness of the character to the nth degree, accenting all of her over-the-top theatrics and domineering ways.
Puck usually is portrayed as a small and young creature of the forest. Karen Wiese-Thompson works against the type, giving us a Puck as much exhausted by her Lord's commands and duties as enthralled by them. There's still plenty of mischief, but it takes on a darker tone with an older Puck at the helm.
Hensley's skill with Shakespeare has long been established, and here — combined with the company and the efforts of set designer Stephen Mohring and music director Peter Vitale — it makes for a crystal-clear, fast-paced, and thoroughly entertaining evening.