The world is too much with Hartford Stage's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

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HARTFORD, Conn. — William Shakespeare's enchanting "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is set within and without Athens. But in the set created by Alexander Dodge for Darko Tresnjak's season-opening production at Hartford Stage — with its dominant brick gatehouse dominating the stage and the quaint architecture of the buildings forming a distant skyline — there is a piquant suggestion of Mitteleuropa. Not only in the setting but also in the costuming — the school uniforms worn by the four lovers; the clothing worn by the household staff of Duke Theseus, Theseus himself and his sullen, petulant bride-to-be, the riding crop-toting Hippolyta, who sulks around the stage in black dressage jacket and tan knee-patch breech.

The primary setting is the garden of Theseus' estate, bound by neatly trimmed hedges and bustling with activity as the household staff — Peter Quince, the gardener (Robert Hannon Doyle); Nick Bottom, the chauffeur (John Lavelle); Snout, the chef (Brent Bateman); Snug, the painter (Louis Tucci); Starveling, the tailor (Alexander Sovronsky); Flute, the boot boy (Matthew Macca); and maids — hustle in, around and through the gatehouse as they get prepare for Theseus and Hippolyta's nuptials.

With a steady turn of the revolving unit upon which the gatehouse stands, the structure, with all its recesses and openings, is transformed, physically at least, into the magical woods outside the city, the domain of Oberon, the fairy king (Esau Pritchett, who doubles as Theseus), and his queen, Titania (Scarlett Strallen, who doubles as Hippolyta), who are locked in a dispute. The gatehouse is now a verdant mass complete with a bower for Titania. But the formalism of the setting with its hedgebound garden stands as emblematic of a production that is, despite its flights of physicality, more measured and pedestrian than fancy free and liberating. The charm of that Mitteleuropa texture never asserts itself until the very ending when, spinning like a carousel, the gatehouse reveals in its windows, doorways, arches, nooks and crannies, delightful, whimsical tableaux of members of the household staff and the reunited, newly wed lovers Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius — winding down in a variety of ways from the dizzying events that have come before' their lives,all of them, transformed.

For the Duke's staff that means basking in the afterglow of having performed their version of Pyramus and Thisbe as wedding entertainment for the court, led by Quince (a credible Davis) and dominated, not always to this production's advantage, by Lavelle's excessively excessive Nick Bottom, a performance that stops the show in all the wrong self-indulgent ways

"Pyramus and Thisbe" marks a rite of passage for Theseus' crew. That sense of transformation, growth, maturation coming from rite of passage is a thread Tresnjak tracks through his production especially for Lysander (Tom Pecinka), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson), Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet, who, as Helena, sheds her irritating shrill vocalizing for something more robust and grounded as she comes into her maturity), and Jenny Leona's steady, consistent, fully realized Hermia.

In his very nicely played Puck, Will Apicella gives us a spirit who is well-grounded, resourceful; in many ways the only grown-up in the room even when he screws up. He is never less than clear-headed and well-intentioned.

Much to his credit, Tresnjak reveals just how meticulously crafted and plotted this play is; how artfully Shakespeare lays out his plot elements and then draws them together with such splendid grace and mastery.

With the exception of Alexander Sovronsky's beguiling incidental music, grace and mastery rarely manifest, however, in a production that moves along on its dutiful way. Not until that gatehouse begins revolving at the end do we realize just how much has been missed.


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