Total Rating: 
June 17, 2017
October 8, 2017
Spring Green
American Players Theater
Theater Type: 
Hill Theater
Theater Address: 
5059 Golf Course Road
Running Time: 
2 hrs, 45 min
William Shakespeare
John Lange

It’s not for nothing that Shakespeare’s magical journey through the woods, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is often cited by theatergoers as their favorite Shakespeare play. In a good production, such as the current one at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis., there’s more than a hint of pixie dust sprinkled through the proceedings. There’s romance, jealousy, competitiveness, tears, and lots of laughter. Adults are made to look as silly as one could imagine. The sillier they become, the more fun they are to watch.

It’s not a stretch to compare the enormous undertaking of staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the gargantuan amusement parks operated by Disney. Each Disney staffer, like each actor onstage in Dream, is expected to create a special brand of magic. Each park guest, like each theatergoer, is made to feel special, to take away a moment that is unique to that person. In the same way, the “best” moments in Dream could be completely different for a dozen audience members.

APT’s top administers have “claimed” A Midsummer’s Night Dream as the company’s quintessential play. It was the play that opened APT nearly 40 years ago. About four years ago, when plans were made to knock down APT’s battered, outdoor wood stage for a stronger, new one, it was also decided that Dream would christen the new stage. The group felt this play was designed to be played in the woods – real woods, with tall trees that swayed in the night breeze.

And so it has come to pass. APT’s new production is a brilliant reintroduction of the tales and characters beloved by generations. The play opens with a motley dressed crew of hand-clapping youngsters. More and more actors come onstage, many of them streaming down the aisles, until all 28 cast members are clapping, stomping or beating drums together. They are smiling, dancing, waving handkerchiefs, celebrating. The adults mingle freely with the five young actors who got the whole beat going in the first place.

If this looks like a happy-go-lucky army, consider the task ahead of director John Langs. He’s got to make every one of these actors blend seamlessly into the story. Aside from a pair of royals, who come forth to announce their upcoming nuptials, the others will split off to become members of the court, or a group of mischievous fairies, or some intentionally “bad” actors (assorted tradesmen in real life) who attempt to gain favor with the nobles by staging a play-within-a-play.

One of the first scenes involves a disagreement between a diminutive Hermia (Melisa Pereyra) and her father, Egeus (Chike Johnson). The young woman has given her heart away to one man while her father prefers she wed another. Father and daughter take their case to the Duke (Jonathan Smoots), who observes no difference between the two suitors in terms of social class, wealth, health, etc.

Playing an excellent Egeus, the father, Johnson raises a few eyebrows in the audience when he announces that Hermia, as his offspring, is his property. He says, “I may dispose of her” as he wishes. The Duke concurs, unwittingly lighting a fuse that will burn for the next two-plus hours.

Hermia isn’t about to do as her father says, even if the Duke threatens her with death or eviction to a nunnery if she doesn’t comply. Her hero, Lysander (a strapping and articulate Joan Rivera Lebron), encourages her to disappear with him into the woods, where they will find somewhere to live that isn’t under the jurisdiction of Athenian law.

So far, so good. But there’s another couple destined to complicate their escape. Taller, blonder, and sturdier Helena (Elizabeth Reese) is obsessed by Demetrius (an energetic Nate Burger). Reese must suffer all sorts of indignities from an annoyed Demetrius, claiming that his verbal abuse only makes her love him more. She hopes to gain his favor by telling him of Hermia’s escape. As he follows her into the woods, she follows him.

When they enter the woods, the play’s scope is widened accordingly. Thanks to Michael Peterson’s lighting, the real trees behind the set are artfully illuminated with shifting shades of color. Inside the set, which seems to be nestled beneath the tall trees, set designer Nanya Ramey constructs a series of concentric circles on top of a rounded pedestal. The upright circles border a large, circular art object, which one assumes is the moon.

Before the play is over, audiences are treated to a domineering Oberon (Gavin Lawrence), the fairy king, and Titania, his fairy queen (Colleen Madden). Both have legs that end in cloven hoofs, perhaps alluding to the fate of one of the workingmen, Bottom (John Pribyl). Madden is particularly effective in conveying her character in her glittery garment and sultry movements. She displays a depth of feeling in every word she speaks. She is undoubtedly the most sexual one in the play, putting to shame the love-struck, human foursome (Hernia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius).

Whenever Madden isn’t onstage, one’s attention shifts to Cristina Panfilio as Puck. Small and impish, Panfilio loves to bedevil the humans who’ve innocently wandered into the woods. At Oberon’s request, she fetches a certain flower that causes Titania (and later, Lysander) to fall instantly in love with the first living object they see.

Panfilio, as Puck, sees no harm in her antics, even ones that seem uncommonly mean. She is happiest when playing the puppeteer, keeping everyone else on strings for her amusement. Thankfully, Oberon uses his own symbolic strings (i.e., magic) to literally pull up Puck when she wants to go too far, or when she has not heeded his directions (even directions that she rightfully insists were too vague to properly fulfill).

In Titania’s case, she awakes to the sight of an ass (the aptly named Bottom, transformed by the fairies). As Bottom, John Pribyl puts his comic talents to effective use. Bottom is not intelligent enough to fully grasp what has happened to him (although the audience certainly registers the change). All Bottom knows is that his speech is periodically altered by braying, and he now yearns to eat hay. (Costume designer Murell Horton gives us a fantastically whimsical and elaborate wardrobe for this Dream). For Bottom, however, she makes only slight alterations to his original outfit, giving him ears, hooves, a mane and a tail. Nothing more lavish is necessary for a knucklehead such as Bottom.

Moving along, an entire review could be devoted to the contribution of the rude mechanicals, those lowly workers who decide to fashion a play on the classic romance of Pyramus and Thisbe. These men (with Peter Quince, played by a woman in this case) seem mostly concerned that a roaring lion might “scare the ladies,” which might lead to their heads being chopped off. The lion scales it down to the point that, when the play is actually performed, he makes more of a meowing sound than a roar. There’s also a worker who plays a “wall,” another man who must use a falsetto voice to impersonate Thisbe, and another guy who sashays around the stage and claims to be “moonlight” (Ty Fanning, Xavier Roe, and Casey Hoekstra).

As the small audience for this production nearly roll off their plush ottomans in laughter, so, too, does the larger audience. It seems as if everyone is enjoying a Dream that will never end. When it finally does, it invariably leaves the audience wanting more.

Jonathan Smoots (Theseus, Duke of Athens); Laura Rock (Hippolyta, betrothed to Theseus); Chike Johnson (Egeus); Melisa Pereyra (daughter of Egeus); Joan Rivera Lebron (Lysander); Nate Burder (Demetrius); Elizabeth Reese (Helena); Jphn Pribyl (Bottom, a weaver); Cristina Panfilio (Puck, or Robin Goodfellow); Gavin Lawrence (Oberon, Fairy King); Colleen Madden (Fairy Queen).
Set: Nayna Ramey; Costumes: Murell Horton; Lighting: Michael A. Peterson; Sound and Original Music: Josh Schmidt.
Anne Siegel
Date Reviewed: 
July 2017