Did I just see my first in-person Shakespeare in 18 months or was it a midsummer night's dream? Would you believe both?
Classical Actors Ensemble is celebrating midsummer with an abbreviated take on William Shakespeare's romantic fairy tale "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The show's Oberon, Tom Conry, introduced it by shouting, "Welcome back to live theater!" and the response from a spirited crowd in a glade at the edge of Lake of the Isles (it's performed at several area parks) suggested people are ready for it to be back.
There are many elements to get right in any "Midsummer": a quartet of rom-com-style lovers whose loyalties keep shifting, a state wedding, fairies who get off on manipulating mortals and a hapless band of players rehearsing a tragedy that inspired "Romeo and Juliet." There's also a sprite named Puck, who sets the tone and makes sure we know what's what.
Knowing what's going on is occasionally an issue with this "Midsummer" because so much has been excised to make sure all the crowd-pleasing things have happened before the sun sets. Less about the language of "Midsummer" than its spirit of playfulness, director Joseph Wiener's production assumes familiarity with the piece, which will be fine for those who have seen the play, but if you're new to it, you may wish for one less interpolated Queen or Rolling Stones song and a little more text. Sometimes this production is so busy finding fun stuff to insert that it misses the fun stuff Shakespeare put there in the first place.
Jacob Hooper doesn't miss one bit of fun. His confidence and authority make for a hilarious Bottom. Hooper revels in Bottom's foolishness and his strong command of the language assures that we get to share in the good time he's having. As Bottom, he's tops.
The four lovers are charmers, too, especially Dominic Rodgers' nerdy Lysander and Samantha V. Papke's neurotic Helena. The mortals are the audience's way into "Midsummer," embodying the theme that love is so baffling that it's as if we are in the control of unseen forces. Nobody likes being heartbroken but, like the banana peel we don't want to meet up with but are amused to see others slip on, it's entertaining to watch these love fools experience that.
Another key component of "Shakespeare in the Park" is the park. You could probably have a fine time watching the actors use the space when they're not "onstage" — hiding behind trees or supplying musical accompaniment from a patch of wildflowers while birds zoom overhead. It's hard to imagine a better "stage" for this play, which is largely set in a forest. Or for our first steps back to in-person theater.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367