The thing about most of William Shakespeare’s plays is that they’ve been around so long (400-plus years), they’ve all been treated to reimaginings, modernizations, film adaptations, returns to original form (as best we can guess), etc. There’s usually a gimmick, which keeps things interesting, but most theatergoers also have a version of each Shakespearean show that, for them, serves as the touchstone. In the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for this writer, it’s the 1999 film starring Stanley Tucci as Puck and Michelle Pfeiffer as the fairy queen, Titania.
The Montford Park Players are currently staging their own version of that beloved comedy (onstage at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater through Sunday, June 30) set in 1930s Appalachia. “I had the idea that it would be fun to give the story a similar treatment that the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? gave Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey,” writes Mandy Bean in the playbill’s director’s note. It’s interesting that, also this month, the American Myth Center is staging an Appalachian version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Asheville — that play’s director also found a correlation between Shakespearean dialect and that of Appalachia.
It’s an intriguing idea, and the mashup ultimately works in some parts of the play better than others. The seersucker suits, boater hats and floral midi dresses of the ’30s are evocative of summer and the implied romance of wandering off into a mystical woodland. Jason Williams’ portrayal of Lysander as part lovable nerd, part used-car salesman somehow pulls together the sometimes disparate elements of Appalachian twang, Elizabethan vocabulary, ardor and comedy. Stephanie Nusbaum commits to Hermia as a young woman in love, vacillating from idealistic to foot-stompingly immature and impatient. And Laura Farmers’ Helena evolves from a spurned ugly duckling, always in Hermia’s prettier shadow, to a comedic swan. Her physicality often calls a wandering mind back to the show’s meatiest, most humorous aspects.
Among many standout moments and players is veteran actor David Mycoff in the role of Nick Bottom. His portrayal is the most successful melding of 1930s Appalachia with 16th-century England (by way of ancient Greece, where the play is originally set). Mycoff’s interpretation elevates both the Bard’s writing and the MPP vision to something of a revelation. Bottom, here, is a moonshiner in a Texas tuxedo and union suit who, inexplicably yet delightfully, leads a group of workmen in producing the play within a play. A word of advice: The culmination of this play within a play comes at the end of the nearly three-hour show. Stay for it.
While the actors in the fairyland scene do much to forward those dreamy parts of the story, the Appalachian influence feels a bit forced in that setting. Fairyland is beyond time and place and could have been represented without, say, patched overalls. The challenge in suspending belief on the part of the viewer is, of course, due in part to the association with previous productions (the aforementioned ’99 film), and the risk, whether or not it totally pays off, is admirable. A sweet mountain ballad, sung in harmony by the fairy queen’s young attendants, is a lovely touch. And Mars Mignon performs Puck — Southern twang and all — with such charming, Peter Pan-ish, thumbs-in-suspenders panache that the trickster is remade as a mountain sprite.
Worth mentioning, the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater is, itself, a character in this production. The setting allows for the actors to dart into the audience, chirping birds add to the ambiance, and when the first stars come out, the spell of a midsummer’s night is complete.
WHAT: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Montford Park Players
WHERE: Hazel Robinson Amphitheater, 92 Gay St., montfordparkplayers.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, June 30. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Free to attend, donations accepted. Chair rentals available for $2