The goblins are about, stirring up an air of dark menace in Ten Thousand Things' "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The new production, which opened Thursday at Open Book in Minneapolis, takes its cue from recent stagings that emphasize the eerie mystery of a night in the dark forest.
Karen Wiese-Thompson lacks only for a safety pin stuck through her cheek to top off her portrayal of Puck — a punky Johnny Rotten knockoff with blue-streaked hair and a black leather jacket. And the screechy fairies almost seem trucked in from the Scottish play.
Michelle Hensley's staging does not neglect the romp that is Shakespeare's comedy. Elise Langer fills her portrayal of Bottom with a vaudevillian zest of gesture, voice, physical clowning. Langer gets the essence of Bottom — confidence built on nothing but chutzpah. She is joined in the Rude Mechanicals' revelry by Kurt Kwan, who sashays through his portrayal of Thisbe with something approaching total commitment. (You'll have to see it.)
It is worth noting that in his other role, as the lover Demetrius, Kwan shows again his spot-on grasp of Shakespeare with the tone of his voice, the articulation and phrasing of his dialogue.
Hensley has also played up the confusion in identity — not so that we can't tell who is playing who in the triple-cast show. Sonya Berlovitz's costuming gives simple, direct clues and Hensley constructs something of a ritual when actors switch their garb. Rather, Hensley mixes up genders, sexual orientation and power relationships. Gavin Lawrence switches from the stern Theseus in Athens to the haughty Titania in the forest. Sun Mee Chomet is a dour and quiet Hippolyta and then explodes into the bawdy masculinity of Oberon, King of the Goblins. Brittany Bradford, innocent and fetching as Hermia, finds her true love in Anna Sundberg's Lysander. Mo Perry wears well the mask of humiliation as Helena, caught between suitors who have been enchanted by Puck's mischief. Her lament to Hermia is a singular moment.
This confusion forces us to investigate the initial moments of disorientation, and helps us realize these are all just creatures of some sort. Names are only names.
Hensley achieves the darkness of this staging at the expense of that swirling updraft of sexual heat we have seen in other productions and the most playful moments are interpolated asides — comments the actors have added to the action. I have a hunch that this practice angers purists and it comes up more and more as the malleability of Shakespeare is stretched from alternate settings to dialogue additions. The audience Thursday wasn't minding.
Ten Thousand Things always has investigated its Shakespeare for new dimensions and here, Hensley has found the shadowy side of human nature. Halloween certainly is in the air.