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review

Sarah Roa as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.Emily Cooper

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  • Title: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Written by: William Shakespeare
  • Director: Scott Bellis
  • Cast includes: Heidi Damayo, Olivia Hutt, Christopher Allen, Emily Dallas, Carly Street, Kate Besworth, Billy Marchenski and Sarah Roa
  • Company: Bard on the Beach
  • Venue: BMO Mainstage at Vanier Park/Sen̓áḵw
  • City: Vancouver
  • Year: Until Sept. 24
  • COVID-19 measures: None

Consider all we have been missing over two dark years of theatre: The spectacle and possibility of live performance, the group experience of laughter and emotion, and the dreamy enchantment of it all. Even if you resist the idea of the theatre being a place where magic can happen as just a bit too sentimental, I think we can offer some latitude in these troubled times. The world has been and remains a rotten place. I would like to go somewhere for a couple of hours and forget about it all!

For these reasons and more, A Midsummer Night’s Dream feels like just the right play to reopen Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, after two dark COVID-19 summers. Dream is also an important play in the festival’s history: the one with which it opened in 1990, the play that often marks milestone festival anniversaries (10 years, 25 years) and the play which was days away from starting rehearsals when the world shut down in March, 2020.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened last week, is the sole mainstage production at Bard this season (there are usually two). It is directed by Scott Bellis, who knows this play and this festival very well; he has appeared in five Bard productions of Dream since 1990, when he was a founding member of the company.

From left: Elyza Samson, Carly Street, Polina Olshevska, Kate Besworth and Anna Wang-Albini.Tim Matheson

And this production delivers on everything we have been missing these past two years, with a story that is both silly and wise, some fine performances, a lot of laughs, and spectacular costumes and sets that take us out of our own dreary world and into this enchanted place.

“This is the silliest stuff that I have ever heard” the character Hippolyta announces toward the end of Dream, after viewing a play within this play. And while there is indeed much silliness – and then some, in this production – Dream is a complex work of art that cleverly interweaves three storylines with not just silly jokes, but serious themes that include the oppression of women.

The story, briefly:

Hermia (Heidi Damayo), a young woman, is refusing to marry the young man, Demetrius (Christopher Allen), that her father has selected for her. The problem? Hermia is in love with someone else, Lysander (a woman in this production, played by Olivia Hutt). Hermia’s father will not relent, so she and Lysander decide to run away to the forest, after confiding in a friend, Helena. Helena (Emily Dallas, who is terrific) is in love with Demetrius, so this suits her just fine.

The forest to which they escape is enchanted, ruled by Titania (Kate Besworth) and Oberon (Billy Marchenski), who are in the midst of a sort of custody battle over a changeling baby. To distract Titania, Oberon charges Puck (Sarah Roa), one of their otherworld followers, to cast spells that will cause a sleeping person to fall in love with the first creature they see upon wakening. The impact will extend far beyond Titania, with love interests now suddenly in constant flux in this fairy world.

Also in the forest, a group of workers is preparing a play to mark the marriage of a high-ranking military official to Hippolyta, a queen from a distant land. This group includes Bottom, played here unforgettably by Carly Street, who steals scene after scene with her bombastic hilarity – even if, at times, her act feels like a bit much (I lost track of the number of times she said the word “okay,” for instance). Puck’s antics include transforming Bottom partly into a donkey – and things get even more weird and hilarious from there.

From left: Heidi Damayo, Olivia Hutt and Emily Dallas.Tim Matheson

The interweaving of these stories plays out on Amir Ofek’s magnificent set that transforms beautifully from Athens to a magical forest, including a sparkly twig nest-bed that rises into the sky. And Christine Reimer’s costumes are out of this world – from gorgeous gowns and lush fairy-wear to a Groot-like Oberon whose transformation from tree-fairy to more humanlike supernatural being is spectacular.

It also delivers some of the best insults in the business: “You minimus, of hind’ring knot-grass made; You bead, you acorn.” (These sound much funnier and more sinister when delivered onstage.)

The era in which this is all taking place is slightly confusing; according to the program, it’s set in the 1920s (or 1930, as the program says elsewhere). But the military uniforms have a definite Nazi-esque feel, and there is a jokey Hitler salute gesture at one point. (Then again, there’s a whole bit with a cellphone, so I guess one is not to get too hung up on time-period accuracy.)

There are some weak spots in this production; most significantly, Damayo did not have me convinced in this central role.

But after a sort of two-year slumber, it felt, yes, magical to be transported to this dreamy world. Dream is a play not just about love, but interconnectedness – a perfect piece of theatre to wake up to after all this isolation.

Tim Matheson

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)