In one of many delicious visual bits in the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the exquisite fairy queen Titania (Nancy Anderson) lounges in the lap of her beloved, Nick Bottom (Stephen Pilkington) — who sports the head of a donkey.
That’s the play in a nutshell — or at least, director Rick Dildine’s well-informed vision of it. (Dildine is also the Festival’s artistic and executive director.) Beautiful poetry couched in broad comedy: It makes a great recipe for outdoor theater.
Over the years, of course, the Festival has also presented impressive dramas (such as “Hamlet” in 2010) and history plays (the 2014 “double bill” of “Henry IV” and “Henry V”). But the comedies seem made to order for the park, where the audience gets to picnic, lounge on blankets and just have a good time.
This “Midsummer” is less refined than the gorgeous 2014 production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, but it delivers family fun on a major scale.
It’s easy to follow, very silly, and a wonderful introduction for anyone, of any age, who hasn’t tried Shakespeare before. As for Shakespeare veterans, they can take it easy and laugh their heads off.
Although the sky was gray and the grass was wet, about 1,300 people came to Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen for opening night on Friday. They were rewarded not only with pleasant weather but with a lucid treatment of a complicated story.
“Midsummer” weaves together three plots, all of them resolved in the woods outside Athens. (Is it an accident that Nick Bottom, a character who links them, is a weaver by trade?) Dildine plays all three for big laughs.
First, there’s the story of the fairies, who actually live in the woods. Titania and the fairy king, Oberon (Timothy Carter), are fighting with each other over who gets to keep a favorite page boy. Beautifully costumed by Dottie Marshall Englis — Titania in sparkling blue silks, Oberon in a tunic and gauntlets that seem to be made of leaves — they make a dashing couple, crackling with spirit and sex appeal. (It would be fun to see them play Kate and Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew.”)
To get even with his wife, Oberon employs his trusted emissary, the fairy Puck, played by identical twins Austin G. Jacobs and Ryan A. Jacobs. Dildine could have made much more of this unusual opportunity, by having Puck often spring up in ways impossible for a single actor.
But each Puck makes a charming trickster, whether he’s romping with the fairies (Myke Andrews, Gabriela Diaz, Raina K. Houston and Ben Watts) or, at Oberon’s instruction, squeezing the juice of a magic flower onto Titania’s sleeping eyes.
That makes her fall in love with the first thing she sees when she wakes up — which happens to be Nick Bottom, after Puck has impishly changed his head.
There’s also a romance involving four well-bred young Athenians. Hermia (Cassia Thompson) and Lysander (Justin Blanchard) love each other, but her father (Whit Reichert) insists that she marry Demetrius (Pete Winfrey). Hermia’s best friend, Helena (Rachel Christopher), loves Demetrius herself.
Hermia and Lysander elope to the woods, with Helena and Demetrius in pursuit. Because Oberon feels sorry for neglected Helena, he tells Puck to juice Demetrius, too, to make him love her.
But mixed-up Puck first gives the magic potion to Lysander, then over-corrects. Now both young men love Helena, who thinks they’re making fun of her. The ensuing battle, when the good-looking young lovers brawl like stooges, is a riot in every sense — particularly when the young ladies sail through the air in pastel party dresses.
Third comes the royal-wedding story, gracefully enacted on Scott C. Neale’s elegant set of white trees before a pale facade, delicately lit by John Wylie. The duke of Athens (Paul Cereghino) and the queen of the Amazons (Jacqueline Thompson) are about to marry. Between Cereghino’s dapper little mustache and Thompson’s arch glances when he orders female obedience, they come off as the Nick and Nora of the Mediterranean. To honor the occasion, a group of “mechanicals” — we’d call them craftsmen — want to present a play.
As the self-important weaver who wants all the roles for himself, Pilkington is hilarious, with or without a donkey’s head. But all the mechanicals — Michael Propster, Jay Stalder, Jerry Vogel, Reginald Pierre and Alan Knoll — are a treat.
In this version, they travel with an accordionist, Ashby Laws, and occasionally pick up guitars and sing themselves. Sometimes, everybody sings, joining in on unusual songs by composers Brien Seyle, Peter Mark Kendall and Matt Pace (also the music director). Thanks to them and sound designer Rusty Wandall, we get a nice change from predictable lutes.
Most romantic comedies end once everybody is paired up. But “Midsummer” ends at a party, as the three sets of newlyweds laugh in delight at the mechanicals’ amazingly terrible play (highlighted by Bottom’s big “death scene”). Then the fairies bless their marriages.
In those last moments, Shakespeare weaves all three stories together. Earthy desire and spiritual grace become one — and guess what, it’s part of a comedy.