I took my daughter to the theater on the occasion of Joe Dowling’s second and celebrated production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2008.
After three hours of theatrical frenzy, she asked whether there was a play in there — and when was it going to end?
My girl’s spot-on assessment was shared by only a few of us. The show soared at the box office, as had Dowling’s first staging in 1997.
Dowling opened his third “Midsummer” on Friday and the pre-show question was whether we would see warmed-over stew, or whether Dowling would seize the occasion and give us something new.
It is something new. And it is quite good.
Dowling invited David Bolger (who choreographed “HMS Pinafore” in 2011) and composer Keith Thomas to jazz up Shakespeare’s malleable comedy enough to make us wonder on the way out of the theater: Were they trying to make a musical?
Right off the bat, Athenian military men in drab uniforms and lit in gray tones suddenly strut out to an electronic beat and a herky jerky Mr. Roboto style. Then throughout the show, Bolger straps up some song and dance — modulating the music with R&B, soft jazz and pop motifs — all driven by a recorded electric piano that puts a techno edge (maybe a whiff of disco?) on the frame.
Dowling chose a buffed-up, energetic cast to execute his kinetic vision.
Tyler Michaels assumes the most consequential role of his young career as Puck, the mischievous fairy of the night. Michaels is a singer-dancer-actor (in that order) with this fourth gear that he can shift into. As he showed in Theater Latté Da’s “Cabaret” last year, Michaels climbs up, down, all around and through the house like a winged monkey. Acrobatic and possessed of a sterling voice, Michaels has that thing that great performers share: a confidence that he knows what he’s got.
The play’s two leads, Nicholas Carrière as Theseus/Oberon and Christina Acosta Robinson as Hippolyta/Titania, look gorgeous, can sing and they speak their lines so we can hear them — which, when you look this great, is all you need to succeed.
Emily Kitchens distinguishes herself among the four young lovers as gangly Helena.
Dowling has set the play in a cauldron, turning the Guthrie thrust into an asymmetrical theater-in-the-round by placing several tiers of seats at the back of the stage. A circular set, with round platforms that pop up on occasion, completes the sense of an eternal circle. Above the back of the stage, Christopher Ash has designed images that are projected in an arc, like the old Cinerama screens.
The evening is still three hours long but talk to Shakespeare about that. Fortunately, the Rude Mechanicals carry the tail end and they are great.
Andrew Weems, miscast the last time he was at the Guthrie in 2013’s “Uncle Vanya,” is perfect as Nick Bottom — a corpulent ham who consumes the oxygen of others with a clueless and supercilious ease. His death scene in “Pyramus and Thisbe” is textbook comic acting. Michael Fell isn’t much as Francis Flute but throw a dress and wig on him to play Thisbe and what a bombshell! Kris Nelson as Snout/the Lion brings down the house with one five-word line that is nearly worth the price of the affair itself. Throw in Jay Albright, Angela Timberman and Peter Thomson and what more could you ask?
This is Dowling’s last Shakespeare production at the theater he has led for 20 years, and it feels like one of his best. The storytelling is disciplined but he has sacrificed none of the dabbling that he loves to do with Shakespeare. This time it really works.