“Midsummer Night’s Dream” is mirthful pleasure at Shakespeare Theatre

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"Midsummer Nights Dream" photo by Jerry Dahlia

Many know Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream from one of its film adaptations, such as the 1999 version with a cast headed by Kevin Kline, or the 1935 spectacle starring James Cagney and Mickey Rooney. No film, however, can prepare you for the festival of slapstick, farce, and mistaken identity — in short, a carnival of clowning in its purest form — that is being presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at its summer stage at the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station.

Director Bonnie J. Monte has taken this magical play and mined it for all its comedic worth. Nimbly she puts the nine-member cast through their paces, double — and triple-casting them among the three worlds of the play: the royal court of Athens; the “rude mechanicals” trying their hand at acting; and the fairy court of Oberon and Titania.

You expect practical jokes from the fairy prankster Puck. You expect flat-out comedy as the tradesmen/actors wreak havoc with a romantic tragedy. But what catches you off guard is the story of the mismatched lovers — Hermia and Helena, Demetrius and Lysander — turned topsy-turvy into slapstick battles, complete with chases through the forest and the most hysterical physical comedy I’ve seen in any of Shakespeare.

The cast of inspired comedians is a dream in itself. Felix Mayes, the show’s choreographer, captivates as Puck, the fairy prankster who creates amorous confusion among the young lovers. Courtney McGowan delights in the roles of Hermia, showing traces of a Jersey girl’s fury as her two suitors desert her, and Snug, the shy tradesman who blossoms playing a lion. Bruce Cromer gives a fine turn as Quince, the harried director of the play-within-a-play, Pyramus and Thisbe, a role with which director Monte might have empathized. The star turn, however, goes to Ian Hersey, making his Shakespeare Theatre debut as Bottom, the self-confident tailor who starts out wanting to play all the roles in the tradesmen’s drama (and write and deliver the prologue and epilogue as well), then literally becomes an ass — with Puck’s assistance — wooed by the fairy queen.

Ms. Monte, aside from directing, succeeds at the three other roles she undertakes for this production. What is presented is a pure example of the director’s vision, as Ms. Monte serves as both set designer and costume designer. Monte’s Athens is conjured with a back wall of faux marble topped by a Grecian wave pattern frieze, with strings of small white lights over the stage. Her forest, however, is defined by sparkly CD-covered walls, neon-signed pillars, and strings of colored lights above.

As for the costumes, they cleverly define the three groups of characters — contemporary for the Athenian court; stylized patched work clothes for the tradesmen; and imaginative, fantastic outfits with accents of ordinary items (credit cards, keys, buttons, faux flowers, etc.) for the fairy court. Finally, as sound designer, Ms. Monte skillfully blends music with natural sounds for the magical forest scenes.

This production is hilarious, and beautiful, and fantastical, proving why this is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies. For a perfect theatrical diversion, go pawn your grandma to buy tickets, and spend a summe’s evening with Shakespeare’s lunatics and lovers under the spell of A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is being presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the Greek Theatre on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station through July 30th. For tickets and information, visit shakespearenj.org.

Note: For this production, playgoers under the age of 18 can see the show for free. Adult playgoers 30 years and under can buy tickets for the discounted price of $30, while all other playgoers pay just $37 per ticket. Pawning your grandma is left to your own discretion.