In her director’s notes in the press packet for Bathwater Productions’ “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Anne Marie Bookwalter, who’s also the company’s cofounder and artistic director, says that she’s always been drawn to the play but was afraid of tackling it.
She probably should have listened to her intuition and chosen something more suited to the company’s current skill level.
Not that this attractive and youthfully charming hometown ensemble — some trained in circus arts, acrobatics and musical theater — doesn’t have a lot going for it.
In fact, the play — the Bard’s most popular comedy, about frustrated lovers, conniving fairies and spirits and bumbling craftspeople — starts out quite engagingly, with the cast gathering to open a trunk full of turn-of-the-century costumes (bodices, bloomers, bonnets and longjohns, etc.; costumes by Vanessa Yee) and simple musical instruments such as pennywhistles, triangles and noisemakers.
It’s fun to see them silently, joyously, transforming themselves into characters in a play.
That bunch-of-kids-putting-on-a-show conceit works well throughout. When not in the scenes, actors sit in the aisles, contributing various sound effects and snatches of English folk melodies. In multiple roles, they morph seamlessly from one character to the next.
The action plays out on a bare stage beneath rows of dangling light bulbs that are magically lit and then extinguished by Puck at play’s end.
The only enhancements to the set are when buckets of autumn leaves are tossed onstage to represent the woods into which the lover flee. Other theaters could take a lesson from the luminous simplicity of Brian Bookwalter’s design.
And the company’s physical skills are put to good use, as they nimbly leap, tumble, somersault, fall and even skid on the slippery floor.
But as for their Shakespearean skills — unfortunately they’re mostly nonexistent. Lines are intoned in sing-song rhythms, bereft of meaning and poetry, with Greta Marti as Helena and Alanna Fox as Hermia faring best at imbuing their speech and behavior with actual, self-assured purpose and feeling. Otherwise, the acting tends to range from tentative to emptily presentational to wooden.
The most successful scenes are those involving the rude mechanicals’ performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe.” Here, the cast’s comedic chops come to the fore. (An actual dog, black with a white ruff, is a hilarious addition to the final scene.)
Bathwater, now 8 years old, would do well in future to match its play selections to its talents du jour.
Presented by Bathwater Productions
Where: Steve Silver Theatre, Lowell High School, 1101 Eucalyptus Drive, San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; closes Aug. 20
Tickets: $10 to $15
Contact: (415) 506-PLAY, www.bathwater.org