SAN DIEGO-The Old Globe Theatre's summer repertory has widened over the years but the heart of it remains Shakespeare. Particularly Shakespeare's comedies, which seem particularly festive and restorative in Balboa Park. Jack O'Brien's staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is the Old Globe at its happiest.
It's a reprise of O'Brien's 1978 production, but we don't get the feeling of something pulled out of the trunk. Everything's fresh and light, suggesting that Shakespeare must have dashed this one off in one lucky afternoon: The construction is too perfect to have been labored at. And the playing has an airborne spontaneity on the Old Globe's new outdoor stage, the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.
Things also are a little weird in the shadows, as they should be in this fairy play. Oberon's and Titania's forces aren't exactly hostile, but they are definitely living in their own world, rather like the Pinhead Sisters in "Elephant Man." Designer Robert Morgan--he did the costumes as well as the set--makes it a world of natural, but fantastic, shapes, suggesting the illustrations of Arthur Rackham. A charming place, with no humans wanted after 6 p.m.
Setting this exotic landscape against the real foliage of Balboa Park could have caused problems, but lighting designer Kent Morgan provides a beautiful bridge between nature and illusion, and everything stays in key, except for those wretched airplanes over Balboa Park. At that, there were only three or four of them Saturday night.
Like Morgan, director O'Brien helps his actors find links between the ethereal and the natural. David Ogden Stiers and Katherine McGrath, for instance, give Oberon and Titania the dignity due the King and Queen of the Fairies. But there is also the slight suggestion of the old-fashioned theatrical couple, he worried about his chin-line and the night's receipts, she wondering who that divine young man was at the matinee.
Jeffrey Combs' Puck also straddles two worlds, a wild-eyed witch boy with a propensity to resist orders on the excuse of not understanding them. Oberon never quite gets him under control, and worries about that too.
As for the lovers, O'Brien makes sure, with all that chasing around, that we never lose track of who belongs to whom. Demetrius (George Deloy) is dark; Lysander (Peter Crook) is blond; Helena (Kandis Chappell) is tall; Hermia (Dawn Didawick) is short. The latter contrast is in the script, but we're often asked to take it on faith. It's much funnier when, as here, we can see why "little and low" sends Hermia into a rage.
We also like these young people. They're not the brainless china dolls of some productions, and we are pleased to see them well-bedded, just as we're happy for the "rude mechanicals" when their amateur-theater performance at court goes off so well, for all their fluffs.
It's hard to fail as Bottom, and Tom Lacy doesn't fail at the Globe. But I'll remember Mitchell Edmonds longer as Peter Quince. This Quince used to be in the theater before he went into the building trades, and he runs a tight ship. Best of all is John McMurtry as Starveling the Tailor, so feeble that he can barely run a needle through a piece of cloth, but dimly excited to be a part of show business.
If you're looking for a dark, revisionist "Midsummer Night's Dream," this isn't it. Conrad Susa's score chimes the intention: to celebrate a smiling play, with due respect for its odd corners. Very much what Shakespeare had in mind, and an appropriate start for the Old Globe's 50th jubilee season.
As for the new outdoor Lowell Davies theater, its sightlines and intimacy are so close to those of the old Festival Stage (destroyed by fire last fall) that, once seated, you tend to forget it is new.
Its chief improvement isn't the thatched-roof facade, and indeed the improvement isn't visible at all. The theater is slung over a Balboa Park canyon, and the old wooden floor could get pretty drafty. The new floor is sealed concrete, and your feet stay warm. Now, if only something could be done about those planes.
'A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM' Shakespeare's comedy, at the Old Globe Theatre, San Diego. Director Jack O'Brien. Scenic and costume designer Robert Morgan. Lighting Kent Dorsey. Composer/sound designer Conrad Susa. Dramaturge Diana Maddox. Stage manager Douglas Pagliotti. With Charles Janasz, Oliver Cliff, Peter Crook, George Deloy, William Roesch, Margaret Gibson, Dawn Didawick, Kandis Chappell, Todd Jackson, Alison Stair Neet, Marsha June Robinson, Reed Martin, Michael Gerald Barnhart, Peter Morgan, Mitchell Edmonds, Tom Lacy, Don R. McManus, Tom Oleniacz, Ian Trigger, Jonathan McMurtry, David Ogden Stiers, Katherine McGrath, Jeffrey Combs, Christine Sevec, Ken Hicks, Susan Gosdick, James Schendel, Jody Gelb, D. B. Novack, Neil Alan Tadken, Craig Cavanah, Mark Hofflund, Leah Maddrie. Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8:30 p.m. at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park. Closes Sept. 1. (619) 239-2255.