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Josie de Guzman and James Black in A Midsummer Night's Dream

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, we suggest brushing up on the bard's famous comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Alley Theatre this month. With superlative acting, a minimalistic set and contemporary-meets-whimsical costumes, the Alley's reiteration of the classic comedy proves why it continues to stand the test of time.

AMND reminds audiences that falling in love is an excruciating experience, but that delicious powerlessness ultimately fosters more mirth than despair. The mischievous nature of love is embodied by Puck the jesting elf, expertly played by Jay Sullivan, who delivers Shakespeare’s exquisite lines with broad physical movements that capture the spirit and language of the play.  

Comedies, unlike tragedies, usually end in weddings rather than deaths, but AMND also begins with an impending marriage. Hippolyta, played by Josie de Guzman with Anna Wintour-meets-Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gravitas, plans to marry Theseus, the Duke of Athens, played by John Feltch (who's also plays Oberon). Oberon decides to play a cruel trick on Titania, Queen of the Fairies (also played by de Guzman), as they quarrel over who should be able to keep a beautiful changeling boy as an attendant.

But it's actually just a power struggle—a humorous battle of the sexes that punctuates the play. Oberon's plan to use magic to make Titania fall in love with the first creature she sees—who happens to be an ass named Bottom, humorously played by Alley favorite James Black—is just one of the comedic hijinks that allows the audience to watch funny things happen in the forest, where liminality rules and all bets are off. 

You might recall the film version of AMND (1999), starring an ethereal Michelle Pfeiffer and a spot-on Kevin Kline, which audiences loved. But for the stage, I prefer this edgy version with its risky physicality and musical infusions of dance and singing. It also juxtaposes the old and new, with Titania’s shimmering fairy-queen costume placed right next to contemporary worker uniforms and Hermia’s flannel-printed pajamas. It makes no sense and perfect sense, fitting well with Shakespeare’s topsy-turvy world. 

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Jay Sullivan (left) and James Black (right) in A Midsummer Night's Dream

The Alley’s artistic director Gregory Boyd, who also directs the play, says in his welcome letter, “[Shakespeare’s] plays have been constantly revived of course, and revised, remixed, transformed, translated and adapted, and they remain an inspiration to artists in every form. In fact, Shakespeare’s own company, The King’s Men, kept reinventing the plays in performance. All of this suggests that the plays are living an eternal, vivid life—no production is ever the same as another—the plays are never standing still.”  

Part of the excitement is watching all of the plot lines work together. Timing in this sophisticated play is crucial, and every player not only delivers their lines with comedic perfection, but aligns challenging physical movements with Shakespeare’s wit in the most astonishing and thrilling ways. From seeing Helena (Melissa Pritchett) pursuing Demetrius (Michael Brusasco) pursuing Hermia (Elizabeth Bunch, who loves Lysander (Chris Hutchison)) to the hilarious antics of Quince (Jeffrey Bean), you couldn’t ask for a better ensemble for these scenes, including John Tyson, Todd Waite, Paul Hope and David Rainey, whose comic expressions and gestures leave audiences in stitches. 

Special recognition to Boyd and Peter Pucci, who choreographed movements into the complicated play, allowing even those unfamiliar with the production to better understand the piece. Shakespeare’s language does not seem remote or far away, but keenly attuned to the emotional vicissitudes of love, even in the 21st century. This says a lot about Shakespeare, but also a lot about the Alley and their ability to make the bard's work both accessible and entertaining.

Shakespeare is the most demanding of playwrights, requiring sprezzatura if you’ve got some, and luckily for Houston theater-goers, the Alley has plenty. Their actors are not only experienced, but experienced working with each other. It is such a pleasure to see such theatrical excellence in a difficult work. Both original and creative, it felt like I was watching AMND for the first magical time, and I didn’t want to wake up.

Thru November 5. From $26. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. alleytheatre.org

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