A key mission for PlayMakers Repertory Company is freshening up classics, whether centuries old or merely several decades. For its annual doubleheader, William Shakespeare’s 16th-century “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is paired with Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical, “Into the Woods” – the former a stark, earthy staging, the latter an engaging, thoughtful updating.
The Sondheim is close to perfect. In this creative interweaving of well-known fairytale characters’ lives, director Joseph Haj’s brilliant concept sets the piece in designer Marion Williams’ aging, multistory library, where a librarian (sly, knowing Jeffrey Blair Cornell) picks up a fallen book and begins narrating the story. In Bill Brewer’s eye-catching 1950s costuming, the characters act out their tales cleverly employing dictionary stands, book carts and library ladders.
The oh-so-right cast is led by Jeffrey Meanza as the blinkered Baker and Garrett Long as his long-suffering wife, each beautifully calibrating the dynamics of their childless relationship. Lisa Brescia’s Witch, both old crone and eventual fashion plate, wittily commands the stage. Jessica Sorgi’s petulant Little Red Ridinghood and Jorge Donoso’s dim-witted Jack cause constant laughter, along with the self-absorbed Princes, Gregory DeCandia and Max Bitar, whose hilarious duets make them audience favorites. Space doesn’t allow naming the other fine players, but all contribute to feeling that this version outshines the original.
Devising a new concept for “Midsummer,” after centuries of productions, can be challenging. Director Shana Cooper purposely gets rid of the gossamer and light in this tale of mismatched lovers and magical spirits. Cooper supplies intense energy and physicality, emphasizing sexual fervor for the lovers and slapstick humor for the band of players. Against Marion Williams’ cold, dark setting of plastic-wrapped trees and aluminum ladders, the actors are clothed in Katherine O’Neill’s steam-punk assemblages or tattered hoodies and grungy military castoffs.
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The approach can appeal to audiences not used to Shakespeare’s language and conventions, but it short-changes the text by having something catching the eye every moment and the lines delivered in efficient, nonchalant phrasing.
The actors exuberantly do what they’re told, but few stand out for their character insights. Zachary Fine makes the journey worth it all, his Robin Williams-like King Oberon wonderfully layered and amusing.
For first-timers this version can open a path into enjoying Shakespeare, and for those tired of traditional productions, it will sweep away all previous notions of “Midsummer.”