Review: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a welcome return of free, outdoor Shakespeare

Cast members of Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Cast members of Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Fenix Fotography

It was indisputably midsummer, with humid air resting on your shoulders like a steam towel as you sat or stretched out on the Queens University of Charlotte lawn.

It was the very beginning of night, illuminated by a full moon.

And it was indeed a kind of dream, plausible nonsense that held together according to lunatic logic before dissolving abruptly at last.

Free, full-length, outdoor Shakespeare returned to the city this week for the first time in five years, under the aegis of Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. Perhaps we should say almost full-scale, as director Chester Shepherd trimmed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” down to 100 minutes or so without an intermission.

He picked the best play for this experiment in family-friendly Shakespeare. First, slapstick works for any generation: Pyramus’ entertainingly endless death scene, roaringly enacted by Peter Finnegan, sent him stumbling among the audience, shoving a wooden sword at multiple parts of his anatomy. Shepherd can be forgiven liberties, such as Titania and a fairy leading three kids from the crowd in “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

Second, virtually all of the play takes place outdoors, so the lawn in front of Knight-Crane Building is a natural habitat. Performers use the doorway to that building, blocked off with multicolored strips of curtain, to conceal entrances and exits. That’s imperative, because all but Finnegan play at least two parts; even Sarah Molloy, the boisterously madcap Puck, takes on the small role of Philostrate. (Kerstin VanHuss takes three, notably Peter Quince.)

Third, we don’t need to hear every word to follow the action. Shakespeare didn’t pack much poetry into this play; once relationships have been established, we know where we are. That’s good, as the microphones didn’t always work. Clamorous insects obscured dialogue for the first 30 minutes, before ceasing as suddenly as if someone had entered the “silence cicadas” setting on a cell phone.

Fourth, a variety of acting styles can co-exist comfortably here. Lysander and Demetrius (Jonathan Ford and Adam Griffin) could be down-to-Earth, while Helena (Anna Royal) and Hermia (Iesha Nyree) shouted their romantic grievances to the skies). Actors distinguished quickly between characters; Steven Levine’s sinister Oberon balanced his tolerant Duke, while Nonye Obichere’s imperious Titania – wearing a diaphanous gown bedecked with blue lights – countered her dismayed Hippolyta.

Fifth, an outdoor setting provides unique opportunities. Caleb Sigmon entertained the crowd beforehand with magic; a basket was passed unobtrusively to anyone who felt like contributing toward the company’s expenses; a Popsicle vendor dispensed exotic flavors well worth the $4. (I recommend roasted peach.)

“Dream” continues through Aug. 24, assuming the heavens don’t belch rain. This project, dubbed “Midsummer Nights @Queens,” continues indefinitely, and Shepherd hopes to do two shows next year. Poetry-heavy tragedies probably need to go indoors – well, maybe “Romeo and Juliet” doesn’t – but there’ll always be a place for the Bard under the stars.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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