While a Punch and Judy version of "The Taming of the Shrew" has possibilities, the Shakespeare play that would seem to work best with puppets is undoubtedly "A Midsummer Night's Dream." And whole moonlit swaths of the Bristol Old Vic's production of "Midsummer," a collaboration with South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, bewitchingly bear this out.
The magic proves hard to sustain for this innovative revival, now at the Broad Stage through April 19, but not before luring us deep into the enchanted world of this supernatural romantic comedy. It's a credit to the trust these brightly resourceful designers have in our imagination that all that's needed to conjure the Athenian woods of Tom Morris' staging are a few wooden planks and the lunar glow of Philip Gladwell's lighting.
As to be expected from the team behind the international sensation "War Horse" — Morris shared a Tony Award with Marianne Elliott for their staging, while Handspring received a special Tony for what could be categorized as creative animal husbandry — this "Midsummer" is more than a puppet show. The mortal roles are cast with flesh-and-blood actors while the sprightly inhabitants of the fairy realm are mostly brought to life with puppetry of a deconstructed order.
Oberon, king of the fairies, is presented by actor David Ricardo-Pearce, who also plays Theseus, Duke of Athens, with a plaster mask of Greco-Roman countenance and a giant hand that hovers with fearsome authority. Puck, his mischievous errand boy, is contrived with objects from a garden shed — a basket, watering can, hoe and handsaw, among other everyday objects that combine into something charmingly otherworldly.
The comic engine of the production is Bottom, played by Miltos Yerolemou, affecting a kind of Señor Wences accent and sporting a dense grove of corkscrew hair as untamable as the improvisational zeal of his performance. When this rustic weaver, who's keen to play all the parts in an amateur theatrical being planned for Theseus' marriage to Hippolyta (Saskia Portway), is transformed into a donkey, the metamorphosis is taken more literally than usual. Bottom, trundling upside-down on a cart, becomes, quite startlingly, a manifestation of his name.
Suffice it to say, the moon figures prominently in this revival.
For all its merry high jinks, "Midsummer" is a complex feat of dramatic poetry, dazzling in its arrangements and analogies. Indeed, this is Shakespeare's greatest comedy not dominated by a central character. There is no Beatrice or Rosalind or Olivia in the patchwork Athens of "Midsummer," a play that is patterned more as a dance than as a psychological journey. Romantic love is explored in its universal rhythms, proceeding like a vexatious dream wherein the dreamer must navigate through a labyrinth before obtaining the blissful prize.
The four young lovers, Hermia (Akiya Henry), Lysander (Alex Felton), Helena (Naomi Cranston) and Demetrius (Kyle Lima), are distinctive physically and temperamentally, though they are more or less a group organism. We follow their romantic antics in sum, wishing for a collective happy ending with no special attachment to any single member of this love-maddened quartet.
The performers in these roles cut bold figures without worrying too much about modulation or subtlety. Henry's Hermia is a touch too strenuous (she's even fiercer than Helena charges), but it must be an anxious business for human thespians to share the stage with Handspring's spotlight-stealing crew of spare parts and miscellaneous yard-sale items.
Turning Bottom into a sight gag, humorous though it undeniably is, diminishes the weight of his testimony regarding the bewilderingly surreal nature of existence. "I have had a most rare vision," he exclaims on being liberated from his bestial form after a night in whichTitania (Portway) and her train of fairies doted on him. "I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was." The touching resonance of these words is lost in the relentless horseplay here.
Vicki Mortimer's design scheme suggests that the play is tumbling out of an artist's studio. The staging is entrancing, though the geography and personnel can get fuzzy in the early going before this theatrical world establishes itself.
But what marvelous scenic effects are threaded throughout the production. Those wooden planks standing in for trees become the instruments of a percussive symphony. David Price's insinuating music, as ingeniously makeshift as the puppetry, and Christopher Shutt's sound design evoke a nighttime realm in which the rational mind is lulled to sleep and creatures of any irrational shape or size are permitted to frolic freely.
One day I'll experience a "Midsummer" that doesn't belabor the play within the play that dominates the final act. If the enactment of this "tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/And his love Thisbe" is more tedious than brief, it's because "tragical mirth" is inevitably reduced by laborious clowning. (Morris' staging in general would benefit from less comic exertion.)
Nonetheless, this inventive production will send you home with a heightened sense of the dreamland surrounding us.
'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Where: The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica
When: Contact theater for schedule. Ends April 19.
Tickets: $47 to $110
Contact: (310) 434-3200, http://www.thebroadstage.com
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes