When a theater critic uses the word “workmanlike,’’ it often carries a faintly dismissive air, suggesting that while a production may be competently executed, it is largely uninspired.
But Bristol Old Vic’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’’ produced in association with Handspring Puppet Company and directed by Tom Morris, is quite literally workmanlike. And it is plenty inspired.
Imagine if your high school shop class suddenly turned into an enchanted Athenian forest. That’s roughly the transformation that takes place during this “Dream,’’ now at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre under the auspices of ArtsEmerson. Yes, there are classical masks, a giant hand, and some painted puppets. But the production generally relies more heavily on humbler stuff: wooden planks to represent trees, a mallet, a brass blowtorch, a gardening fork, a saw. There are no fancy costumes; most of the 12-member cast, and not just those playing the Rude Mechanicals, are dressed as if ready for a day of labor.
Yet while the props and the attire are mostly utilitarian, the effects generated by this “Dream’’ are anything but. The production casts a brooding spell when it wants to; there are moments when time seems to stand still. And the innovative finale is likely to send chills up your spine; it’s a moving scene, visually and aurally. What drives the enterprise, though, is its spirit of mischief and its appetite for mayhem. This is the unstuffiest Shakespeare imaginable, fueled by a let’s-put-on-a show gusto executed with knockabout, anything-for-a-laugh physical humor.
For instance, the production takes a rather, um, ingenious approach to the transformation of Bottom the Weaver (zestily played by Miltos Yerolemou) into a donkey. Let’s just say that Bottom has never seemed so aptly named, and that when a lovesick Titania (Saskia Portway), Queen of the Fairies, praises “thy amiable cheeks,’’ it draws a much bigger laugh than that line usually does.
Titania is under a spell, the sprite Puck having administered a magic juice — on the order of Oberon (David Ricardo-Pearce), Titania’s estranged husband — that makes her fall in love with the first creature she sees upon awakening. Puck is a puppet — the aforementioned blowtorch serves as his face — whose lines are spoken by the three actors who manipulate him across the stage.
And he is a busy fellow: It was Puck who bewitched Bottom, and he also has a hand in complicating matters among four Athenian lovers: Helena (Naomi Cranston), Demetrius (Kyle Lima), Hermia (Akiya Henry, excellent), and Lysander (Alex Felton).
Matters eventually sort themselves out among the quartet, and they are treated to a performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe’’ by the Rude Mechanicals. This play-within-a-play is amusing but goes on too long, as it almost always does, no matter the production.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ has long invited a wide variety of interpretations, from highbrow to lowbrow to somewhere in between.
There was a 1935 film version with James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney (speaking of putting on a show) as Puck. Alvin Epstein’s celebrated 1970s production of “Dream,’’ first staged at Yale Repertory Theatre and in 1980 at the American Repertory Theater, employed music by Henry Purcell. In 2009, the ART opened a disco-themed adaptation of “Dream,’’ titled “The Donkey Show,’’ that is still playing at Oberon, and in 2010 Actors’ Shakespeare Project transposed “Dream’’ to a gritty, graffiti-laden urban environment.
This “Dream’’ is not the first collaboration between Morris, the director, and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. They teamed up for “War Horse,’’ whose remarkable, life-size equine creations made the word “puppet’’ seem sadly inadequate. Morris won a Tony Award for co-directing “War Horse.’’ With the smaller-scale “Dream,’’ he creates a very different but equally satisfying brand of magic.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org