Let's begin in no uncertain terms: For the Seattle Repertory Theatre, more is always more. Known for leaning on its sizable budgets and master craftsmen, the company has never been a fan of the subdued. If we build it, the thinking seems to be, you will come. Without a doubt, this assumption has overpowered many productions. It does little harm, happily, to artistic director Sharon Ott's staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Rep's particular extravagance provides much of the pleasure in this take on the classic. The company has most certainly built it, and, yes, you should go.
Ott crisply sets up the central romantic complication—the flight of illicit young couple Hermia (Kirsten Potter) and Lysander (Matthew Troyer) into the woods, and their bewitched love games with prissy Demetrius (Jeffries Thaiss) and sad sack Helena (Courtney Peterson)—then flies off into dreamy imaginings. You're quickly caught up in the play's timeless, gossamer distractions before the design team starts jumping for joy.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Seattle Repertory Theatre ends February 25
Shakespeare's ethereal romp through this mythical wood is open for new invention, and costumer Paul Tazewell's little touches give Ott's fancies an extra comic lift. Potter makes a scrappy, giddy Hermia, and her defiant longing for her forbidden suitor is summed up when they both arrive on the scene as leather-jacketed hipsters. More fitting is the story's roving band of would-be actors, envisioned as beer-gutted, butt-cracked, blue-collar dreamers, led by Peter Quince (an hysterically dry Jeff Steitzer, fussing in toupee and musty cardigan) and the sweetly egocentric Nick Bottom (Geoff Hoyle).
Some of the playfulness can push it. It's odd to find Puck (Dan Donohue), the Fairy King's impish lackey, as a droll Master of Ceremonies (Cabaret's Joel Grey by way of the Riddler). You have to readjust to Donohue (priceless in the Rep's The Game of Love and Chance) slinking around in top hat and tights when you're expecting more sprightly mischief, but his slyness wins out. And if Hoyle is hammy with his working-class accent and acrobatic slapstick, he is knowingly, generously so. His exuberant work is exactly as broad as it thinks it is.
Choreographer Daniel Pelzig's musical interludes, admittedly, are not as entrancing as they think they are. He and Ott reach for the same kind of storytelling splendor that's been perfected by Rep favorite Mary Zimmerman (The Odyssey) but are not as agile at folding such flourishes into the mix. They interrupt the flow: The numbers, well sung and gamely executed by Tazewell's shaggy fairies, are too blatantly asking for our respectful attention.
Make no mistake, Ott, a devotee of sumptuous stage pictures, definitely gilds the lily. Someone is bound to roll his eyes as Brent Harris' blowhard Fairy King Oberon hovers regally in his black Bat-suit, casting a mischievous love spell above the floating slumber of Suzanne Bouchard's lovely Queen Titania (both actors are ideally double-cast as Theseus and Hippolyta, the play's human royalty). Though some of the spectacle may threaten the buoyancy of Shakespeare's frothy circumstance under the weight of so much pomp, there's no getting around how vitally gorgeous much of it is. You can't take your eyes off it, but more than that, it feeds back into the fantasy. Set designer Hugh Landwehr's transformation of the deceptively idyllic forest into a swirling, echoing hall of mirrors, its denizens spinning in and out among the reflecting portals, is inarguably both grand imagination and apt metaphor.
For all its trappings, this is a Midsummer that doesn't feel packaged and preordained. The story comes to life with genuine merriment. Those familiar with the play's charms will be too swept up in Ott's lucid comic details to find themselves ticking off each folly by rote, and any newcomers will be completely engrossed, despite what may seem a daunting length (it clocks in at about three hours). Funny and lushly romantic, it's a Dream that keeps your eyes wide open.