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Theatre Review: Star of "Midsummer" is Cincy Shakes's New Theater

Cincinnati Shakespeare’s splendid new, intimate theater is the star of season opener A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Bard’s romantic comedy about a royal wedding, young lovers being messed with by fairies, and a troupe of goofball working guys intent on performing for the wedding celebration.

The new theater is nicely tucked on Elm Street across from the School for Creative and Performing Arts and a block up from Memorial Hall and Music Hall, with Ensemble and Know theatres a five-minute walk east. Over-the-Rhine now completes the biggest arts footprint in the city.

Thee Otto M. Budig Theater is equipped with everything it takes to make theatrical magic – fairies fly over the audience (especially Sara Clark, whose Puck goes airborne like Peter Pan); in the onstage background the moon does fancy tricks; the sound, light, and multi-media all shine.

We’ll hope that Cincinnati Shakespeare grows into its new home.

Dream is a real mixed bag, maybe because the company was so intent on showing off its new digs that director Brian Isaac Phillips forgot to give the play its heart. It’s a collection of good ideas and bad ideas that don’t fit into a polished whole.

Dream opens to an elegant, classical stage setting with full-length draped black curtains. Enter Theseus and Hippolyta (Darnell Benjamin and Maggie Lou Rader) in combat. It’s a bold choice, but it doesn’t work as well as it should. There needs to be a sexy undercurrent – please give us what’s below the surface – but too often the actors are concentrating on the fight choreo. Benjamin connects better than Rader.

Enter the lovers: Obnoxious Demetrius (Kyle Brumley) has dumped heartbroken Helena (Caitlin McWethy) and made a deal to marry Hermia (Courtney Lucien) who loves Lysander (Crystian Wiltshire). What are lovers to do but run away through a forest thick with mischievous and occasionally malevolent fairies?

This quartet does fine with lots of physical stage business, but what was Phillips thinking, turning deep-feeling Helena into a sitcom joke? Here’s a character who should pluck our heartstrings, instead she’s – annoying. Really annoying. You can’t blame Demetrius for running.

In fairyland, king Oberon and queen Titania (Giles Davies and Miranda McGee) are feuding. They are both fine performers, but we have no idea if they have any feeling for each other (good or bad) which is a loss.

I can’t figure out what Davies was doing, unless he was riffing on Ricardo Montalban in honor of the 35th anniversary of The Wrath of Khan. Happily he’ll soon be back in the title role of Dracula, which has been delighting Cincinnati Shakespeare audiences for years.

As Oberon’s wing-gal Puck, Clark gives one of Dream’s strongest, most emotionally-grounded performances. She’s a fearless flyer and a sharply drawn, thinking stage presence. As always, she’s one of the company’s greatest assets.

McGee gets Titania right but here’s my question – she’s a fashion-plate in the swanky style of Jean Harlow, so what’s with her Goth fairies? Not her style at all. The costumes are beautifully executed by Amanda McGee, but they’re a mismatch with the inhabitants of this particular fairy bower.

Meanwhile, nearby the band of would-be thespians are busy rehearsing, and some of the company’s best character actors – Kelly Mengelkoch Jeremy Dubin, Justin McCombs, Paul Riopelle, Billy Chace – are a tight mini-ensemble surrounding Matt Johnson’s egomaniacal Nick Bottom.

Mengelkoch (go see anything she’s in, anywhere in town, she’s that good) is the stand-out as Phoebe Quince, who, behind a pair of stern spectacles, haplessly tries to herd the inept crew and who cheers like nobody’s business when things go right. You’ll absolutely wait for her to come back on stage. It’s a performance I’ll still be smiling about at the end of the season.

Nick Bottom is famously transformed into an ass as a mean trick on Titania, who, thanks to magic, is entranced. Johnson wears a headpiece, but a full donkey’s head would have been a far better choice.

Because the production doesn’t grab us by the heart and mind, it seems longer than it is.  When, late in Dream, the working stiffs’ (a.k.a. The Mechanicals) play-within-a-play goes on and on and on, it feels longer still. A lot of the comedy choices are old and too worn to give this much time to. It feels as if the whole scene were developed by a bunch of guys who find each other hugely entertaining.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, through Sept. 30. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, 1195 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $27-$52. $14 student rush tickets may be purchased 30 minutes before a performance with a valid student ID, if available. 513-381-2273 (BARD) and www.cincyshakes.com. 

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
Photo provided