S.F. Shakes’ ‘Dream’ is visual overload

For his new San Francisco Shakespeare Festival production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” director Kenneth Kelleher has taken a kitchen-sink approach; you can almost hear him saying “let’s throw it all onstage and see what sticks.”

The results are colorful, if seldom cohesive, in the free Shakespeare-in-the-park presentation that opened the company’s 25th season Sunday evening at Pleasanton’s Amador Valley Park. Additional performances are scheduled in San Mateo, San Francisco and Cupertino throughout the summer.

With its mood swings from mirth to magic, low humor to lyrical love poetry, Shakespeare’s comedy — which takes place over a long, hot night in the woods outside Athens — needs a firm directorial hand. Visually, Kelleher’s staging is all over the map. The play’s two sets of young lovers resemble contemporary slackers on their way to the prom; the King and Queen of the fairies are cast as 1970s rockers in silver lamé. Puck is a Brit-pop sprite in striped trousers and aviator glasses, and the nobles wear long, inexplicably grim military coats. Bottom and the rude mechanicals look like extras in a Marx Brothers movie.

There’s a lot going on, but no discernible center; absent a unifying concept, the visual overload tends to blunt the comedy and trample the delicacy of the poetic moments. At Sunday’s opening, the cast — making entrances at various points around the stage, including a series of trapdoors in the floor — was pushing too hard, at least in the first half of the 2½-hour show (with one intermission); even some of the surefire jokes fell flat. The fairy world felt decidedly earthbound, and the human story, with its all-important romantic stakes, didn’t seem to matter; it’s hard to get with the flow of Shakespeare’s language, or care about the characters involved, when everyone onstage is yelling.

Still, there were some fine individual performances. Summer Serafin’s girly Hermia and Maria Grazia Affinito’s geeky Helena were bright and energetic; John Sousa (Demetrius) and Nicholas Pelczar (Lysander) supplied plenty of hormones. Emily Jordan (Hippolyta/Titania) and Michael C. Storm (Theseus/Oberon) made an elegant, articulate pair, and Gary S. Martinez was a wonderfully bombastic Bottom — aristocratic, and more mature than some, which made his overbearing stage-hog behavior all the more apt.

The hilarious last scene, with the post-nuptial “Pyramus and Thisbe” play-within-a-play, was the production’s most traditional, and also the most successful; here, at least, this “Dream” yielded pure pleasure for a midsummer’s night.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Presented by San Francisco Shakespeare Festival

When, where: July 14 and 15, Pleasanton’s Amador Valley Park; July 21 to Aug. 5, Cupertino’s Memorial Park Amphitheater; Aug. 11 to 26, San Mateo’s Downtown Central Park; Sept. 1 to 23, Presidio Main Post Parade Ground, San Francisco

Admission: Free

Contact: (415) 865-4434 or www.sfshakes.org

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