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In the Berkshires, ‘Midsummer’ has arrived

Michael F. Toomey (left) plays Puck and Rocco Sisto (right) Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which Shakespeare & Company director Tony Simotes (below) sets in New Orleans.

elizabeth aspenlieder

Michael F. Toomey (left) plays Puck and Rocco Sisto (right) Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which Shakespeare & Company director Tony Simotes sets in New Orleans.

Tony Simotes played the mischievous sprite Puck when Shakespeare & Company staged its very first production, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” outdoors at Edith Wharton’s estate, The Mount, in Lenox back in 1978, under the direction of founding artistic director Tina Packer.

“When you’re that young — I was 27 — you really don’t have a true sense of what it will mean in terms of your whole life,” Simotes says. “We were all just kind of giddy with what we were doing. We had no idea whether people would even show up, and they did.”

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Now, Simotes directs a New Orleans-y production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the company, with Johnny Lee Davenport as Bottom/Pyramus, Merritt Janson as Titania/Hippolyta and Rocco Sisto as Oberon/Theseus. Puck, who is responsible for many of the play’s mis-aimed love potions and misunderstandings, is played by Michael F. Toomey.

The production begins performances at the Tina Packer Playhouse on Saturday and runs in repertory through August with “Henry IV, Parts I and II” and “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).”

The company raised the curtain at its new home, a short distance from The Mount, in 2001. Packer passed the baton of artistic director to Simotes in 2009, though she continues to be heavily involved with the company.

This is the eighth “Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the company on a main stage, including its last play at The Mount in 2001, again under Packer’s direction. Simotes was looking for a new angle.

Inspired in part by Shakespeare & Company’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf” two years ago, he began to think about “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the Big Easy.

“I really felt like there was a city in the United States that really represented this place where magic and poetry and love all kind of coexist, and the mythology of the city was so strong, and that was New Orleans,” Simotes says from his home in Pittsfield. “With the bayou, and the idea of what might come out of those mysterious woods where Spanish moss hangs and the air is so thick.”

Expect a stage with shutters and mood lighting and moss entangled with Mardi Gras beads, plus live music flavored with spirituals, jazz, and standards that might have been heard in New Orleans in the 1930s.

“The unenviable position” of playing Puck for a director who knows the role so well, Simotes says, falls to Toomey, a company member who is also associated with the Split Knuckle Theatre, based in Storrs, Conn.

“I actually love playing this part in a company where it has such a long history,” Toomey says. Besides Simotes, he says, his friends and mentors Jason Asprey (2001) and Jonathan Epstein (1993) have also played Puck there. Epstein plays Peter Quince in the current production. “I actually find it a real honor to be in that line of actors.”

His Puck, Toomey said, is a traveler, a bit of a magpie, picking up things that interest him, living a rather mysterious life. Toomey notes it’s not his first Puck, either; the Danvers native played the character in a student production at St. John’s Preparatory School about 20 years ago.

“He’s created his own comic rhythm that’s really great,” Simotes says. “He’s my master of ceremonies in a way. His energy represents kind of the drunken nights of Carnival, that’s where he is in the beginning, and he transforms into Puck. He represents mischief and chaos, you know, like when you can’t find your car, you parked it somewhere just off Bourbon Street and you can’t remember where you parked it. And Puck has been responsible for misplacing your keys or changing the signs on the streets.”

Back in 1978, Simotes reshaped the common conception of the role, more by necessity than design. He had just seen a New York production in which Puck was played by a light and thin ballet dancer. “I became a sort of reluctant Puck, very earthbound, and what I discovered was my own Greek heritage. It was earthy and sexy and lustful.

“We were hanging from trees and limbs and swinging in on ropes and really using nature in the show. And, my God, what play best represents Shakespeare in his desire to reconnect theater and nature together?” Simotes says. “Plus we had the most beautiful fairies you could ever want. So it was a lot of fun.”

Shakespeare & Company director Tony Simotes

Elizabeth Aspenlieder

Shakespeare & Company director Tony Simotes.

To hear him tell it, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” also sums up most of those early days of the company at the Wharton estate.

“Most of us were living in apartments in New York that were just barely bigger than a closet, and then to be living in a mansion, it was just amazing,” Simotes says. “We were living out some wild theatrical dream. We were all living together and creating the company together and cooking together, arguing and loving together. It truly was an amazing experience.”

A first for Israeli Stage

Israeli Stage will present its first full production in 2015, the North American premiere of “Ulysses on Bottles” by Gilad Evron, presented in partnership with ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage. The play, translated by Evan Fallenberg, is the story of an Arab literature teacher who is arrested for trying to sail books to Gaza on a raft made of bottles, and the Jewish lawyer who defends him. The production will feature some of Boston’s best actors — Jeremiah Kissel, Will Lyman, and Karen MacDonald, who all appeared in the Israeli Stage reading of the play in December 2012. Other roles have not been cast yet.

The production will be directed by Guy Ben-Aharon, an Israeli native and Emerson grad who is the producing artistic director and driving force behind Israeli Stage. “Ulysses on Bottles” will run April 9-25, 2015, in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Center, 559 Washington St. Tickets, from $25 to $49, are available at www.artsemerson.org.

For 2014-15, Israeli Stage will also produce readings of three Israeli plays at the Goethe-Institut in the Back Bay. This year’s choices are “Never Ever Ever” by Sivan Ben-Yishai on Sept. 14, “Make My Heart Flutter” by Hanoch Levin on Nov. 2, and “Games in the Back Yard,” by Edna Mazya on Feb. 15, 2015. Tickets are $15 and available at www.IsraeliStage.com.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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