freeFall's Midsummer Night's Dream is first-class Shakespeare

The Bard is back in an entirely expert production.

Our long local Shakespeare drought is over.

A couple of weeks ago, there was Eckerd Theatre Company’s wonderful Twelfth Night, potently employing half of the best actors in the Tampa Bay area, and bringing us a Malvolio never to be forgotten. Now there’s freeFall Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, vibrantly utilizing the other half, and bringing us a Puck and Bottom the Weaver as good as any you’ll see anywhere.

Can this really be happening? Has the Bard returned to the Bay? freeFall’s program announces that The Comedy of Errors is already scheduled for October. Can this be true? Or shall we say that we have “but slumbered here/while these visions did appear”?

No: it’s real. And freeFall’s Dream is a splendidly accomplished work, postmodern in sensibility, acted to the hilt by a large, professional company, and designed so vividly, you have to worry for the theater’s budget.

The cast is universally strong. Gene D’Alessandro is a regal, intimidating Oberon, leisurely ordering Puck to make mischief, and Roxanne Fay is a gracious Titania, warmly enamored of clueless Bottom, and not for a moment deterred by her lover’s donkey ears or mule-brain.

As the love-struck Hermia, Jackie Rivera is excitable and importunate, and as her rival Helena, Jennifer Christa Palmer is a desperate, spurned debutante. Other standouts include John Lombardi as an earnest Quince the Carpenter and Tavis Doucette as Hermia’s beloved Lysander. But truth be told, just about every part, large or small, is well acted by this ensemble.

And then there are Giles Davies and Matthew McGee. To begin with Davies: his is a Puck who’s not far from being a dangerous, ignoble savage. No ethereal sprite here: instead a frightening, nightmare figure, part scalp-hunting Indian, part psychotic shaman. This is probably what Shakespeare intended – after all, he has a Fairy remind us that Puck “frights the maidens of the villagery,” “mislead[s] night wanderers” and is sometimes called “Hobgoblin.” Leaping and prancing around the stage, his long hair cascading down his naked back to his waist, Davies’ Puck dominates this Dream and reminds us that, to quote the Rolling Stones, “Love: it’s a bitch.” Most Dreams I’ve seen aim at a gossamer fairyland ambience; this one, thanks to Davies, suggests the bloody magic of the barbarian. With a very few changes, this Puck could easily become Caliban.

McGee as Bottom is precisely the opposite. Mild and silly, earnest and innocent, McGee’s Bottom is a simple soul, childishly self-centered but utterly harmless. When Puck turns him into an ass, he wears not the whole head of the beast, but only a couple of soft-looking ears, as innocuous as a baby’s nightcap. If Davies’ Puck is a tiger, McGee’s Bottom is a lamb, and it’s shrewd of director Eric Davis to remind us (as William Blake did) that our strange world contains both. It’s true that McGee’s work in the Pyramus and Thisbe scene isn’t as funny as it might be, but this is still one of the most ingratiating performances in this Dream. I’d love to see what the gifted McGee could do in the comedies of Molière.

Scott Cooper’s set design for this in-the-round Dream is deceptively minimal: a large green square, at the center of which is a raised green platform, at the center of which is a square pool of water (watch that pool for some lovely special effects). But if the set is basic, the costuming (by Mike & Kathy Buck Designs) is lavish: modern for the most part, with 1950s dresses for Hermia and Helena, up-to-date workmen’s togs for the Rude Mechanicals, a tuxedo and evening gown for Theseus and Hippolyta (also played by D’Allesandro and Fay), silly pajamas for the Pyramus and Thisby scene, and even a single-brick-headdress for the character (Dawn Truax) playing Wall.

Davis’ direction is splendid, presenting an eclectic group of acting styles from the most naturalistic (Rivera as Hermia) to the most stylized (Chris Rutherford as Thisby). Jo Averill-Snell’s lighting is top-notch.

And so is this Dream. True, it lacks a coherent worldview in favor, instead, of a postmodern eclecticism, but even so it’s beautiful and entirely expert. If I’ve praised freeFall’s potential in recent reviews, this is one time I want to speak out for the company’s accomplishment: Dream is powerful, first-class Shakespeare. It would seem that The Bard Is Back – and in the hands of capable artists.

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