For its 40th anniversary, Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park is, to my delight, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies and my deep affection for this play hearkens back to my adolescence. A moonlit forest overrun with squabbling lovers, homespun oddballs rehearsing a play, faeries stirring up confusion with potions and bodily transformations—I know these lustful, fever dream antics almost by heart and their lyrical whimsy never fails to transport me.
Director Jamie Robinson’s fanciful production is bursting with all the vibrancy and farcical joy I crave. Jackie Chau’s set is a gloriously disconcerting blend—psychedelic swirls of light and colour juxtaposed with grimy barrels and heaps of cumbersome trash. This magical forrest is being slowly defiled by the wasteful burden of industry.
The story’s two pairs of sparring lovers—Hermia and Lysander (Jadyn Nasato and Stuart Hefford), Helena and Demetrius (Megan Legesse and Frank Chung)— flee into these fraught woods to find and fight for love. Each have distinctive, compelling personas; I was most intrigued, though, by Nasato’s Hermia. Even before the big lovers’ fight, her underlying irritation with the hipster-crooning Lysander gives her an edge that actually enhances their romantic chemistry.
Steven Hao’s faerie prankster Puck is another pleasant surprise. He isn’t the confidently mischievous trickster I anticipated. Hao’s portrayal is adorably lethargic and befuddled as he muddles his way through Puck’s spritely duties.
There are a lot of contemporary embellishments to the “mechanicals” scenes. As blue collar workers, their dialogue features some pointed shout outs to local unions as they prepare and perform their ridiculous play. Aaron Willis’ over-confident enthusiasm and charisma as Bottom is a highlight; as is Ryan G Hinds’ portrait of Peter Quince as an uber-artiste, blowing his hilarious whistle when words just aren’t dramatic enough.
I was sad to see the running commentary from the royals and lovers omitted from the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. Their exclusion makes room for some cute extended shenanigans. Yes, Angel Lo has some very endearing stuff going on as the wall, but the protracted schtick does get a little tiresome.
Text absolutely needs to be cut, but I feel some really important bits (to me, at least) were lost here. Where the omissions hurt most was in Helena’s plaintive speech about friendship. In the middle of the lovers’ zany fight, she takes a moment to be vulnerable with Hermia. So much of this lovely passage is gone and what remains is completely upstaged by some comic brawling between the men.
The cast is kinetic and engaging throughout and this all works as dreamy, comedic spectacle. Those less familiar and enamoured with this play won’t be bothered by the significantly truncated text. Anyone who knows and loves these characters deeply will, perhaps, grieve a little for the loss of some of the more poignant bits.
On a final note, I’d like to shout out an understated little gesture that really struck me. After the lovers have made amends and head off to be wed, Legesse’s Helena looks out towards the audience, dubious about their new reality and sensing a presence in the surrounding woods. It’s a truly inspired moment—funny, eerie and resonant.