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Stage Review

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ played strictly for laughs

Rocco Sisto (left) as Oberon  and Michael F. Toomey as Puck in Shakespeare & Company’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Kevin Sprague

Rocco Sisto (left) as Oberon and Michael F. Toomey as Puck in Shakespeare & Company’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

LENOX — “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ has always been catnip to theater companies, especially during the season celebrated in its title.

Shakespeare & Company artistic director Tony Simotes certainly makes the most of the play’s slapstick aspects as he takes the helm for a diverting “Dream’’ that is enjoyable on its own knockabout terms.

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But there is a deeper form of enchantment that this production misses; the spell it casts quickly evaporates. Shakespeare’s ideas (about the irrationality and troubling evanescence of love, among other things) aren’t really given room to breathe, and the enterprise seldom lulls us into a dreamlike state, for all the flights of fancy depicted inside the Tina Packer Playhouse.

There are dark chords to be sounded in this play, but they are seldom heard here except when Rocco Sisto’s imposing and implacably power-hungry Oberon stalks across the stage. Instead, Simotes — who has directed “Dream’’ twice before and played Puck in a 1978 production at Shakespeare & Company — adopts a determinedly crowd-pleasing approach.

The action unfolds not in ancient Athens but in a New Orleans redolent of the late 1920s and early 1930s, a conceit that is not fully developed except for, I guess, the laissez les bon temps rouler spirit that governs the production.

That is especially evident in an epic, acrobatic brawl in Act 2 among the four young folks whose romantic misadventures form the spine of “Dream’’: Hermia (Kelly Galvin), Lysander (David Joseph), Helena (Cloteal L. Horne), and Demetrius (Colby Lewis). Their encounter in the woods plays like a combination of a pro-wrestling smackdown — complete with a bicep-flexing gun show by the men — and an unhinged Three Stooges routine. Among the scene’s pleasures is the stage-seizing confidence displayed by Horne, so impressive last summer in Company One Theatre’s “How We Got On.’’

A brief reminder of why this foursome is wandering around the forest in the first place: Hermia has defied her father’s insistence on an arranged marriage with Demetrius, because it is not him but Lysander whom she loves. Helena, meanwhile, is besotted with Demetrius, but he won’t give her the time of day. Off to the woods Hermia and Lysander scamper, with Demetrius in hot pursuit of them, and Helena in even hotter pursuit of him.

The cast of Shakespeare & Company’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Kevin Sprague

The cast of Shakespeare & Company’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Then the supernatural mischief begins, courtesy of Oberon, King of the Fairies — who is estranged from his Queen, Titania (Merritt Janson) — and Puck, a sprite portrayed by the burly Michael F. Toomey in togs and goggles that he appears to have lifted from the costume department of the “Mad Max” movies. Oberon administers to a sleeping Titania a magical juice that will cause her to fall in love with the first living thing she sees. That first thing proves to be a laborer named Bottom, played by Boston favorite Johnny Lee Davenport, whose head has been transformed by Puck into the visage of a donkey.

Next to receive a taste of fairy-style bewitchment are Demetrius and Lysander: A does of the juice makes them both fall passionately in love with the hitherto ignored Helena. This greatly baffles and annoys Hermia, leading to the aforementioned imbroglio.

The forest battle is so over-the-top that it out-farces what is usually the most exaggerated scene in “Dream’’: the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, ineptly enacted by the “rude mechanicals,’’ led by Peter Quince, portrayed by Jonathan Epstein, speaking in a Cajun accent, the only cast member to consistently do so. Also on hand is Annette Miller, with a big cigar clenched between her teeth, as Snug. Davenport is very funny, especially when Bottom tries to lay claim to every role in the playlet.

No question, it’s a capable cast all around. But this “Dream’’ ultimately does not add up to much more than the sum of its antics.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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