Review: "A Midsummer Night's Dream" of Roadies and Rock Stars

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Written by William Shakespeare

Adapted and directed by Laurie Harrop-Purser

Presented by Renaissance Now Theatre & Film at the Chain Theatre

312 West 36th Street, 4th floor, Manhattan, NYC

July 26-29, 2023

L to R: Eden Bostrom, Ryan Hopkins (as Puck), Josh Munoz, Preston Ochsenhirt, and Charli Purser. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Music, poetry, love, recreational drugs: each of these can transport an individual, and Renaissance Now Theatre & Film's new production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream has them all as it marries the magic of music with the more literal magic of the play's reality-manipulating faeries. This version of the Shakespearean comedy sets itself in Laurel Canyon, California, in the late 1960s/early 1970s, imagining the characters as musicians, roadies, and concertgoers. It is running in rep with Hamlet Speaks, a version of the play that includes new, "audience involved monologues" by Hamlet and Ophelia, a tragic counterbalance to this Midsummer's cheerfully chaotic comedy.
Austin Zimmerman, Caleb Voss, Preston Ochsenhirt in the Mechanicals "Band." Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
The show starts out with the mechanicals–or, we should say, The Mechanicals–covering a few songs with a mix of some live instruments and vocals and recorded backing tracks. The Mechanicals are opening for Theseus (Desmond Walker), The Duke of Rock, who at one point stops a fight with the power of a high note and who is pitted in a sing-off against Hippolyta (Yulissa Torres), The Amazon of Song, by their managers, Oberon (Rick Macy) and Titania (Amanda WIlliams). The inclusion of well-known 20th-century songs is both entertaining and apt, as early modern theater would itself incorporate popular songs into its plays and performances. Once the quartet of young lovers–Lysander (Joshua Johnson) and Hermia (Sydney Olsen) love one another, but Demetrius (Seven Harrison), favored by Theseus, has decided that he will be the one to marry Hermia, abandoning Helena (Sonja Hugo)–set off into the forest around Laurel Canyon, the familiar Midsummer unfolds, although it continues to feature added and altered lines throughout. Magic misdirects affections, wooing becomes literal pursuit, and the Mechanicals try to pull off a career-making amateur theatrical.
Joshua Johnson as Lysander, Sydney Olson as Hermia, Sonja Hugo as Helena, Seven Harrison as Demetrius. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Causing much of the magical mischief, deliberately and otherwise, is Puck (Ryan Hopkins, perfect in the role), seemingly doing his best to follow Oberon's directions but perhaps slightly impeded by the tightly rolled joints that he carries and consumes. Oberon and Titania undergo a bit of a transformation when the play moves into the wild woods, the former, invested with a sometimes exasperated authority by Macy, resembling Rob Halford meets Alice Cooper meets a raven (very much a compliment). The positioning of this powerful, long-lived, loving but squabbling couple sometimes puts one in mind of Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) as another immortal couple involved in the arts (actors playing the Mechanicals also double as Titania's faeries, suggesting another, perhaps more metaphorical set of transformations or alter egos). Peter Quince, here renamed Piper (Charli Purser), organizer of the Mechanicals' brief play, takes on more individuality than in many productions, thanks both to the adaptation and to Purser's comedic performance.
Rick Macy as Oberon, Amanda Williams as Titania. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
The production as a whole leans into the comedy part of this romantic comedy, including liberal doses of physical comedy; and Olsen's lively, temperamental Hermia is consistently one of the funniest characters on stage. Hugo as Helena spars enjoyably not only with Olsen but also with Harrison and Johnson. Joining Piper Quince/Peaseblossom, Josh Munoz delivers a hysterical take on Mustard Seed, and Eden Bostrom's reactions as both Mechanical Robin Starveling and faerie Cobweb are worth watching out for. And Bottom (Austin Zimmerman), here a drummer–while Snout (Preston Ochsenhirt) is hilariously dubbed lead rain stick player and Caleb Voss is Snug, nepo baby and apprentice tambourine player–is invested with a likable bravado, drawing both our empathy and our laughter. The production also draws the audience in by, for instance, addressing some lines to audience members and blending the onstage and offstage audiences for the very funny play-within-a-play. This Midsummer Night's Dream is not only a lot of fun but also ends much more happily than the actual dream of the late 1960s.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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