Opening Nights

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Center House Theatre; ends Sat., May 8

I was not looking forward to director Arne Zaslove's pop Dream, despite its enduring popularity (it's been around in one form or another since he first staged it in 1968) and the sworn testimony of people I trust. Setting Shakespeare to 1950s rock classics sounds so pandering, so precious, so wrong; it can't be anything but gimmicky to give the most accessible play in the canon such sugary frosting. Well, damned if you don't sit there thinking how ingeniously right it is, even if the eager but low-wattage cast of this current production keeps it from floating up to the stars where it belongs.

A school bell rings us into a brief, non-Bard prologue amidst the bleachers and bobby-soxers of the Athens High School auditorium on what will become a memorably magical prom night, complete with cheerleader fairies and principal Theseus (Wil Holm) announcing his marriage to faculty member Hippolyta (Laura Crouch). I know, I know—ugh. But stick with it for the payoff: Theseus launches into the Danleers' 1958 hit "One Summer Night" ("One summer ni-i-ight/We fell in lo-ove/One summer ni-i-ight/I held you ti-ight"), the show segues without a bump into the original text's iambic pen­tameter, and you smile in the realization that Zaslove is onto something pretty wonderful—the moony, palpitating tenor of the era's pop valentines meshes divinely with Shakespeare's swooning lyricism. Hermia (Natalie Backman) runs out into the night with Lysander (Allen Cox) because her stuffy dad, Egeus (Edwin Stone), wants her to marry Demetrius (John Ulman), who can't see that the better girl for him is the awkward, slavishly devoted Helena (Sienna Harris). Why not hear "Teenager in Love" in the middle of such heartsick hyperbole?

The notion works so well you'll want to ignore the many problems with the ensemble, which at its best might be considered appealingly gauche. A lot of the actors can't really sing, and the singers—Holm, or the cleverly Fonzarelli-ed king of the fairies, Oberon (Arthur Anderson)—don't sound as good once the doo-wop stops. I rather liked Heather Hawkins' indignant greaser queen, Titania, and Hana Lass makes Puck a fetching tomboy, but no one is as effortlessly bright and zingy as Zaslove's concept. Very few people here are quite in command of what they're supposed to do, yet what they're supposed to do is so charming that the attempt itself seems enough. It may be a disappointingly earthbound evocation of a heavenly idea, but the Dream is just as sweet. STEVE WIECKING

Black Coffee

ACT Theatre; ends Sun., May 2

If you missed out recently on a big Easter dinner, there's plenty of ham onstage at ACT, where director Kurt Beattie has apparently decided that unless his cast's eyebrows get a good workout, we won't understand that Agatha Christie was no Shakespeare. Never have so many made so much of so little.

Sir Claud Amory (Laurence Ballard) is a physicist who suspects that one of the guests on his English country estate is out to snag his Secret Formula. What's a physicist with a Secret Formula to do but lock all the suspects in a room with him, turn out the lights, and end up dead? Enter Hercule Poirot (David Pichette), Belgium's best brain, who shows up too late to stop the murder but just in time to keep the culprit from fleeing the scene.

Hokey? Sure. Unintentionally amusing? Yep. And don't think they don't know it: The actors camp it up in a way that ensures we know they're only slumming it until ACT's real season begins. I normally enjoy good-natured bunk like this, but the tireless nudging and aren't-we-all-really-above-this-sort-of-thing irony kind of tuckered me out. You feel like you owe them a laugh just to show them what a good chap you are about it. Then Beattie cues the ominous mood music at key plot points—get it? Get it?!

Pichette's a fine character actor, but sorry, no Poirot: He's working way too hard to evoke the detective's smug, fat-cat fastidiousness; his spastic mannerisms, emphatic accent, and funny little mustache are more Hitler than Hercule. The smaller supporting parts have their moments: Susan Corzatte lies low and seems to trust that we'll know an old British biddy when we see one; Ian Bell does the boisterously inept Inspector Japp I've always envisioned; and I got a little kick out of Emily Cedergreen, who, as an unrepentant flapper flirting with Poirot's sidekick, Capt. Hastings (R. Hamilton Wright), lolls back on the couch and purrs, "I suppose you believe in all sorts of old-fashioned things . . . like decency." In a tree full of overripe fruit, I'll go for the tastiest to stomach.

Hey, it's harmless stuff, certainly, and not intended to be anything more than a creaky time killer. But I can't help thinking the musty old thing would've been a lot funnier—and a lot more fun—if everybody would've kept their elbows to themselves. S.W.

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