Review: A (musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream (Driftwood Theatre)

Photo of Siobhan Richardson and James Dallas Smith by Dahlia KatzA (musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream, presented by Driftwood Theatre in Withrow Park, was adapted to a musical in 2004 by composers Kevin Fox and Tom Lillington and director D. Jeremy Smith. They wanted to put an a cappella twist on Shakespeare’s classic comedy of fairies and love triangles. The result is a fun, well-paced show that packs on the charm and shakes off a lot of the potential staleness of this constantly-performed classic.

Midsummer’s plot is convoluted, but this streamlined production makes it easy to follow. As a refresher: Hermia (Marissa Orjalo) loves Lysander (Nathaniel Hanula-James). Lysander loves Hermia. Hermia’s dad Egeus (Ahmed Moneka, who also plays an impish Puck) wants Hermia to marry Demetrius (Nick Dolan) on threat of death. Demetrius loves Hermia. Hermia doesn’t love Demetrius. Helena (Kelsi James) loves Demetrius, who hates her in return.

Meanwhile, ruling elites Theseus (James Dallas Smith) and Hippolyta (Siobhan Richardson) are getting married, and a group of “Rude Mechanicals” create a play for their nuptials, while Oberon, King of Fairies, is fed up with his wife Titania’s dotage on a human child. The lovers and fairies wind up in the forest one night, most under the influence of fairy servant Puck’s instant love potion. Chaos ensues.

This production doubles the usual roles, such as Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta. It goes on to present a particularly compact cast by also doubling the lovers as the mechanicals – except, of course, for the chief ham extraordinaire, Bottome, played with heavy-metal-inflected aplomb by Steven Burley. Burley’s physical comedy and overbearing personality are spot-on, his difficulty controlling his speech after his partial transformation into an ass a particular highlight.

The show is simply but effectively staged with a largely blank playing space backed with light-laden ladders, with a few modern touches. In this case, the Rude Mechanicals are autoworkers whose plant has recently shut down, and have thus recently been forced to resort to theatre in the hopes of winning Theseus and Hippolyta’s favour and coin. The concept added some interesting potential to the play, which I think could have been exploited more in the characterization; there’s a lot of class tension between the mechanicals and nobles that gets frothed away with less than complete consideration. It would, admittedly, ruin the mood a bit, and they do get in a great joke about manspreading in the meantime.

Phones feature prominently in the modernization, with Hermia and Lysander obsessed with creating Insta-worthy images of their love. I thought I would find this cheesy, but the pair’s ability to create crisp selfie-ing tableaux was incredibly entertaining. Even the Pokemon GO reference worked.

The musical aspect of the production is what makes it particularly interesting. Fox and Lillington are a cappella veterans, and have created a multifaceted score that runs the gamut from hair band and glam rock to more madrigal-adjacent fare. A cappella in the park is a difficult feat, and there was the occasional issue with pitchiness. Some singers are stronger than others; in particular, Richardson, Hanula-James and Orjalo are standouts. However, the singing meshed increasingly well as the night went on and was completely delightful once the actors found their groove.

That’s not to discount the acting. On the whole, the excellent cast was well-matched in any way they paired off. The showdown between the lovers was effectively explosive, and Puck corrals the recalcitrant wanderers into sleep with clockwork choreography and a jaunty tune.

One issue I often have with Midsummer is that one of the most famous scenes – the play-within-a-play – occurs after every other plot thread has essentially been wrapped up. Funny as the scene is, it’s often drawn out after the play feels finished. This production’s use of varied musical styles instead of hitting the same “funny over-acting” note made the section feel fresh and fun, with Burley’s Pyramus and Hanula-James’ Thisbe particularly rocking it up to a heightened frenzy.

As the show runs nearly two hours without intermission, you may want to bring your own chair or spring for one of the $30 reserved seats (the show is otherwise PWYC), rather than sit on the grass on the hill. Even if your legs are cramping, though, you’ll likely want to stand up and dance at the culminating wedding. With the singers harmonizing, the fairy lights glowing, and the sun slowly setting over the horizon, it’s a magical midsummer evening.

Details:

  • A (musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream plays July 27th at Withrow Park (725 Logan Ave), July 30th at Guild Park, Scarborough, and August 15 at Daniels Spectrum courtyard with tour dates around the province until August 18 (see website for details).
  • The show begins at 7:30PM.
  • Tickets are PWYC at the door (free, or suggested donation of $20-30). Seats and spaces can be reserved in advance online for $30.

Photo of Siobhan Richardson and James Dallas Smith by Dahlia Katz