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Trish Lindström (left) as Puck and Craig Lauzon as Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photography by David Hou. Stratford Festival 2021 Mid Summer Night's DreamDavid Hou/Stratford Festival

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  • Title: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Written by: William Shakespeare
  • Director: Peter Pasyk
  • Actors: André Sills, Trish Lindström
  • Company: The Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to August 1; will be filmed for Stratfest@Home

It felt as disorienting as waking from a long, deep sleep watching the first scenes of the Stratford Festival’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened Thursday night in a tent set up in the parking lot outside the Tom Patterson Theatre.

People on a stage telling a story – and more than just one or two of them. Is this actually happening?

The liminal state between reality and dreams, a world mid-transformation, is where much of William Shakespeare’s most popular comedy takes place – and so it’s a fitting show to perform in this time of theatre and society’s still slightly uncertain reawakening.

Because of the festival’s current safety protocols, director Peter Pasyk was limited to eight actors and an hour-and-a-half running time – but, thankfully, abridged Shakespeare with actors doubling roles is not exactly a brave new world.

Having the same pair play the engaged Athenian royals Theseus and Hippolyta and fairy-world king and queen Oberon and Titania is commonly done in Dream productions. In this case, Pasyk takes things a step further, insinuating that the latter characters are the former’s alter egos: Craig Lauzon and Bahareh Yaraghi appear in bathrobes as the Athenians, and then rip them off to show their fairy garb, as if revealing the superheroes beneath secret identities.

Having Trish Lindstrom play both the strict patriarch Egeus – who insists his daughter Hermia marry a man she does not love, or be put to death – and the anarchic Puck is a more unusual idea.

Lindstrom, an actor with a unique angular physicality, who always deeply invests in the language she speaks and seems incapable of being boring on stage for even a second, sells these opposites marvelously – albeit while wearing a puzzling costume designed by Lorenzo Savoini that suggests the frontwoman for a Clockwork Orange-themed ska band.

From left: Amaka Umeh as Flute, Micah Woods as Snout, Jonathan Mason as Quince and Eva Foote as Snug in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photography by David Hou. Stratford Festival 2021 Mid Summer Night's DreamDavid Hou/Stratford Festival

Eva Foote, Micah Woods, Jonathan Mason and Amaka Umeh, a quartet of younger actors currently in Stratford’s Birmingham Conservatory, are in fact triple cast – which gives an audience a chance to fully appreciate their range.

The four play, respectively, the kept-apart lovers Hermia and Lysander, Demetrius (who’s in love with Hermia) and Helena (who’s in love with Demetrius) – as well as the fairies who wreak havoc on them in the forest to which they escape, and the so-called “mechanicals” who are rehearsing a play (about kept-apart lovers) to be performed at the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta.

The only actor who has the luxury of playing a single role is Andre Sills, perhaps best known at Stratford for his Coriolanus. I suppose you might say he has top billing as Bottom, the amateur actor who famously gets transformed into an ass. Sills gets the first gut-busting laughs of the night in this reliably comic role, hitting a sweet spot of loveable gregariousness throughout.

He is not a scene-stealer like some Bottoms, mind you – and he allows the younger actors to shine. In particular, Umeh playing Flute playing Thisbe in the play-within-the-play is wonderfully touching. In fact, she’s excellent in all of her roles.

Umeh’s distinctive performances certainly whet my appetite for her Hamlet under the direction of Pasyk – which was set to open up the 2020 Stratford season that never was, but we’re told, is only delayed.

The other stand-out among the young lovers is Foote – who brings a fresh angle to Hermia. It’s a sort of indie-folk take on the character. She literally plays her at an angle, with a slight stoop – likely to compensate for the fact that she is not really any shorter than Umeh’s “maypole” Helena. (If Lysander and Demetrius here are blander in comparison, they almost almost always are.)

0119 Eva Foote as Hermia and Micah Woods as Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Stratford Festival. Photography by David Hou..jpg Stratford Festival 2021 Mid Summer Night's Dream Eva Foote as Hermia and Micah Woods as Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photography by David Hou.David Hou/Stratford Festival

Pasyk makes a few small interventions to the play that are little more than curious. Demetrius speaks of the “rich worth” of Helena’s “fertility,” instead of virginity, for instance. But the director’s main switcheroo is successful.

In this production, Titania is fully aware of Oberon’s magical machinations to make her fall in love with whatever happens to pass by next – which ends up being Bottom, in donkey form. This flips the script on who’s tricking whom. While I was suspicious of the change at first and the pantomime-like way it was signalled, it all paid off thanks to the complex shades of jealousy Lauzon exudes as Oberon.

I sensed a slight physical hesitancy to some of the performances that may stem from a rehearsal process where the actors had to keep a distance for a while. The embraces between the young lovers, for instance, were mostly short, like hugs between friends. Pasyk’s conception of the flight into the forest ultimately veers towards the orgiastic, but it nevertheless feels a bit chaste, despite the prop phalluses.

The cast nevertheless work hard to create an intimate feel, despite circumstances that are less than ideal: acting in the daylight, outdoors, wearing head-mics, on a stage that is a facsimile of the traverse stage inside the Tom Patterson. (The special actor/audience relationship that forms around that set-up indoors ultimately cannot be replicated with spectators spaced around on moveable chairs.)

But once I could finally believe that what I was seeing was actually happening, I was carried away by this Dream fully.

Nobody pinch me, please.

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.