It takes a lot of gumption to write a sequel to something by Shakespeare, but that's what John Heimbuch and Walking Shadow Theatre Company have done with A Midwinter Night's Revel.
As you can guess by the title, the show riffs on A Midsummer Night's Dream, moving the action from the love-soaked sweet evening of the original to the chilly days before the Winter Solstice.
It's not just the season that's chillier in Heimbuch's play. The action takes place in England at the end of 1915. The Great War has been raging for a year, and the young men from the town are fighting and dying in France. Meanwhile in the fairy realm, the cold war continues between Oberon and Titania, who are still battling over the Changeling Child after 2,000 years. The newborn has grown slowly over the centuries, and appears to be a boy of 12 now.
The boy has come to deliver a wedding ring to a woman named Gwen. Gwen's husband, Robert, has fallen in France, but Titania has rescued him and taken him to the fairy realm. It seems that Gwen's father Morien — in shades of The Tempest — had been a powerful magician in his youth, and was friends with the Changeling Child. During that time, Morien cast a powerful spell to protect his family from danger.
While these fantastical machinations are underway, a group of Gwen's friends decide to bring some cheer to the village by putting on a traditional mummers play. It goes about as well as the Rude Mechanicals' performance in Shakespeare's work, as rehearsals are interrupted by fairies and a transformation. This time, a man turns into a wild deer.
Midwinter is too cool early on. The subdued emotions and laid-back pacing make the first act feel like an extended prologue. Heidi Fellner and Daniel Ian Joeck take a long time to settle in as Titania and Oberon. There's no sense in the performance as to why these two would want to end up together again.
The second act improves, as the mortal lovers have considerably higher stakes than the silliness of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Gwen and Robert must decide if they will remain in fairyland forever. If Robert leaves the realm, he will die. Friends Clara and Will have chemistry but they're not ready to commit to each other, even though Will is about to head off to France to face the same fate as Robert.
That's the spark the play needs to burst to life. It's aided by a terrific turn by Neal Beckman as Puck. Beckman manages to make the character otherworldly, but he also gives Puck added depth.
By then, the production's chilly beginning is nearly forgotten, as we have moved into the warmth of friendship and love. A Midwinter Night's Revel isn't a perfect play, but it certainly offers a meditative look at Christmas that is long-removed from our modern-day, commercial concerns.
IF YOU GO:
A Midwinter Night's Revel
Red Eye Theatre
14 W. 14th St., Minneapolis
Through Dec. 30; 800-838-3006