Summer of Lust

One of William Shakespeare’s most popular and frequently produced plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also one of the Bard’s most flexible. The four lovers, amateur acting troupe, and supernatural fairies that make up the bulk of its cast are fine fodder for creative teams to stretch their artistic muscles in interpretations far and wide. As part of their Summer of Lust programming, The Hive Theatre Company teams with the cell (a self-described 21st century salon) for a gender-bending Midsummer that gleefully explores the idea of equality in marriage — a timely topic indeed.

Although trimmed and abridged, this version is still a bit too long at almost two hours and forty-five minutes and a bit too reliant on style over substance. But as minimally staged in the elegant Chelsea townhouse that acts as home base for the cell, there is still plenty to recommend in this lively and lusty variation on the classic tale.

Gender and power are at the forefront of Midsummer and as directed by Matthew A.J. Gregory, this Dream is no different. This time, however, Hermia and Lysander are lesbian lovers and Demetrius and Helena are a gay couple. Add to that, the husband and wife duo of Theseus (Duke of Athens) and Hippolyta (Queen of the Amazons) take on the roles of the King and Queen of the Fairies, in reverse, with the man playing Titania and the woman playing Oberon.

If all this sounds confusing, it makes perfect sense on-stage. Credit the enthusiastic cast and inventive director for keeping things moving at a smart clip, although the last thirty minutes (especially the play-within-the-play, Pyramus and Thisbe) would definitely benefit from faster pacing. Hint: Don’t wait for the laughs — keep moving!

Starting off at the posh and proper wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, things get progressively sexier and more sinister when Titania's fairy servants, played as hard-bodied club kids, enter as if staging an all-night rave. Oberon as a Russell Brand-esque dandy and Titania as a glamorous drag queen up the ante even higher. Samuel T. Gaines and Meghan Grace O’Leary are excellent as both royal couples.

Chris Critelli is also a standout in the production, wholeheartedly embracing his characterization of Oberon’s mischievous jester Puck. Not all of his choices are completely successful, but Critelli is nonetheless compelling as the Cupid-like Robin Goodfellow. Michael Raver is superb as well, bringing multiple shades to the love-struck Helena and exhibiting the most believable chemistry of all the couples with Alan Winner as Demetrius.

While mostly enjoyable and at times quite funny with delightful modern touches and a thoroughly contemporary soundtrack and sound design by Justin Stasiw, this Midsummer tends to rely too much on tricks. Many of the characterizations seem born out of uncorralled improv with a “watch me!” mentality overshadowing the proceedings in a needless hodge-podge.

The members of the acting troupe, in particular, fall prey to much idiosyncrasy instead of meaningful elucidation. Just because something gets a laugh doesn’t necessarily mean it belongs. And the cell’s high-ceilinged interior has terrible acoustics. At times the cast members’ shouts were piercing and almost ear-shattering. Consistent volume of the actors’ voices was also a problem. Some players boomed while others whimpered.

Regardless, this Midsummer Night’s Dream is a sprightly and sensual bit of bare bones theater. As Lysander says to Hermia, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” With an attractive young cast and some intriguing explications of the text, it is easy to at least enjoy the bumpy ride with this clever production.

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