If it’s magic you want, director Shana Cooper’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at California Shakespeare Theater has it in rich abundance.
There’s spooky magic in the way that fairy queen Titania’s shadowy attendants slink around her.
There’s the magic spell that enchants the entire forest to which the lovers Hermia (a delightfully acrobatic and ferocious Tristan Cunningham) and Lysander (Dan Clegg as a seductive bad boy) flee, and into which Hermia-smitten Demetrius (a comical, intensely focused Nicholas Pelczar) pursues them and Demetrius-smitten Helena (a vulnerable and desperate Lauren English) follows him.
It’s a spell that not only scrambles the foursome’s love-wires but also manipulates them physically, even when they’re asleep, in Erika Chong Shuch’s dance-like, trance-like choreography. (Chong Shuch’s roles as Titania and Hippolyta were performed by an understudy the night I was there, as were one of James Carpenter’s two roles.)
And of course there’s the mischievous fairy Puck, played with diabolical glee by comic genius Danny Scheie, whose subtle mannerisms make him seem ever-so-slightly, weirdly, not human.
In contemporary but non-specific costumes (by Katherine O’Neill), the actors perform on a forest-like floor, with stacks of logs in the background (set by Nina Ball). The backdrop opens up to the Orinda hills at a certain point; no more set than this is needed to capture the play’s ethereal ambiance, especially as illuminated by lighting designer Burke Brown.
As to the Rude Mechanicals: Despite sharp characterizations by some of the Bay Area’s finest actors – Margo Hall as a strutting, self-important Nick/Bottom, Liam Vincent as the theatrical troupe’s beleaguered director, Scheie as a squeaky-voiced Snug/Lion and towering Craig Marker as a hilariously earnest Thisby — the “Pyramus and Thisby” sections don’t quite achieve their comic potential until the play’s final scene.
In all, though, this “Midsummer” beautifully evokes the dark undertones of Shakespeare’s enchanted realm.
As well, it reveals the equally dark notes to be found in a tale in which romantic love is just as fickle and inexplicable as love can truly be (“My love for Hermia melted as the snow,” declares the faithless Demetrius, compelled by Puck’s magic to lust for Helena). Cooper’s directorial vision extends that pervasive sense of missed and almost-missed connections of the heart to encompass more characters than you might expect.
It is a “Midsummer” in which Puck’s final advice to the audience–to imagine that you have “but slumbered here/While these visions did appear”— resonates fully.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheatre, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 28
Tickets: $20 to $72
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org