The love games of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" are as frolicsome as they are exquisitely patterned. Of all his romantic comedies, this one has the structural elegance of an elaborate dance.
The play has flashes of magnificent poetry, but it's the way the action is choreographed that Shakespeare's genius most fully reveals itself.
The Actors' Gang production of "Midsummer," directed by company chief Tim Robbins, strips the play down to its bare essentials. There are no sets to speak of, the lighting is often stark and the special effects tend to involve nothing more than plastic foliage and billowing sheets.
Scenic enchantment isn't the goal here. "Midsummer" is Shakespeare's most purely playful play, and the objective of Robbins' revival seems to be to capture this spirit of group imagination, the horseplay of theatrical fantasy.
The production takes its inspiration from the mechanicals, those rustic artisans besotted with the theater who set out in their delightfully amateurish way to produce a play in honor of Theseus and Hippolyta's royal nuptials. The Actors' Gang style is similarly exaggerated, often jokey, begging the indulgence of audience members while inviting them to join, at least vicariously, in the fun and games.
The showmanship isn't meant to impress, and it doesn't. What does win us over — for a good while, anyway — is the performers' humble desire to entertain. Shakespeare, a consummate man of theater, understood how this theatrical impulse is deeply rooted in our collective humanity.
The holiday humor of the play wears thin in the final stages of Robbins' production, which could use a stronger shaping hand. The pacing stalls, and the scenes get a bit smudgy as the logistical challenges mount in a shoestring staging that requires many of its actors to take on multiple roles.
Sabra Williams, who plays Hippolyta and Titania (roles that are often cast with the same actor), is also called on to play Puck, a part she shares with Alejandro Ruiz and Cihan Sahin. In trying to sort out the personnel, you might find yourself echoing a line from the play: "So quick bright things come to confusion."
The remark is made by Lysander, one of the four young lovers who flee Athens for a magical wood. The character is played by the impressively malleable Will McFadden (one of the most agile performers in the ensemble), but even he is stretched to the limit in doing triple duty as a fairy and one of the mechanicals.
Thematically, the casting makes perfect sense as the play sets up parallel realms — the fairies, the lovers, the rustics and the court — in the context of a surreal night in which identities blur with the freedom of a dream. Yet, practically speaking, it's hard to avoid a muddle.
Standout performances from Pierre Adeli (as Theseus and Oberon), Williams (who raises Hippolyta's feminist consciousness), McFadden (more for his excitable Lysander than for his mincing fairy), Adam J. Jefferis (for his flighty Demetrius) and Mary Eileen O'Donnell (as a priceless bumbling Peter Quince) help anchor the show.
And there's certainly no mistaking Lee Hanson's feisty Hermia for any other character. Compared to Hannah E. Chodos' soft breeze of a Helena, she's a Category 5 tornado. Bob Turton overdoes the clowning when Bottom is performing with his troupe, but he somehow possesses a comic dignity when donning the mask of an ass. Go figure.
At the end of this "Midsummer," as the mechanicals present their drawn-out "merry and tragical" tale of Pyramus and Thisby, you might feel as though you were being served the dregs of a spiked punch bowl.
But the jauntiness of this Actors' Gang production makes it possible to endorse and extend Theseus' generous review: "This palpable-gross play hath well beguil'd/The heavy gait of night."
'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Where: The Actors' Gang at the Ivy Substation
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Ends Aug 31.
Contact: (310) 838-4264 or http://www.theactorsgang.com
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes