A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Rated 4.0 It hardly seems possible, but this is apparently the first production of that most adaptable and “youth-friendly” of Shakespeare’s comedies—A Midsummer Night’s Dream—in the 40-year history of the UC Davis Theatre Department.Director Peter Lichtenfels, visiting from England, has an eye for visuals, goes for a mix of modern and fantastic, and takes the line about “what fools these mortals be” pretty literally. The fumbling attempts at romance by all three human couples are completely out of kilter, soon degenerating into laughable late night shenanigans in the moonlit woods.

Of course, that’s mostly because that supernatural trickster Puck and the grudge-driven Oberon, king of the fairies, are prodding them on. But these are not your dewy, dainty sprites. Both rap monologues to a throbbing, amplified hip-hop beat. Oberon (Mischa Random Pollack) looks like he could chug a pint or two, almost invoking Falstaff. Puck (Sam Tanng), painted bright red, moves like a night raider from a kung fu film, doing flips and handstands.

What’s more, Oberon and Puck emerge as even more meddlesome than usual. They gleefully manipulate mortals like marionettes, and take frat-boy delight in doping others with aphrodisiacs, giggling over the episodes that result.

The script’s (ahem) “openings” for bawdiness—diversely available throughout—are here played up in the fairy realm. Particularly the herb-drugged queen Titania, who is regal, randy and completely ready to take charge as she eagerly—repeatedly—spreads her legs for athletic sex with the donkey-headed Bottom.

Performances are variable in terms of skill. Some cast members have nearly finished their master’s, handle verse capably and deliver basically professional work. Others are undergrads working with a limited tool kit, perhaps doing this script for the first time. High points include Shahnaz Shroff as Helena, anchoring a quartet of human lovers (Cooky Nguyen, Drew Hirshfield, Ryen Perkins-Gangnes) who do well as a group. Tall, handsome alto Linda Noveroske Rentner makes a strong Titania.

Production values, as usual for big UC Davis shows, are higher standard than most equity efforts hereabouts, at a ticket price a few bucks cheaper than many more modestly mounted community shows.

It all makes for quite a lot of fun with bit of a hard edge, and the emphasis on manipulation and deceit (rather than innocent, slightly misguided starlit love). It’s significantly better than your usual Shakespeare in this market.