It ain't summer until, in a park somewhere in Canada, a fairy queen says, "Methought I was a enamoured of an ass."
For its 30th anniversary, Canadian Stage's Shakespeare in High Park – billed as the oldest annual outdoor theatre event in the country – has returned to A Midsummer Night's Dream once more.
Richard Rose – the artistic director of Tarragon Theatre, who used to be a regular at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival – has put together a delightful Dream, a stripped down (not dumbed down) version broad enough to compete with mosquitoes in the outdoors, but full of thoughtful detail.
As he was known to do at the Stratford festival, Rose has transposed the setting of Shakespeare's comedy to Canada. Things kick off with Mounties and Muskoka chairs, as Theseus and Hippolyta arrive at a lakeside resort by golf cart.
Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, the soon-to-be Duchess, deliver the first lines about their impending marriage into a microphone as if at a press conference. The sequence seems a neat nod to another Duke and Duchess's romantic trip to Canada last summer, as if Will and Kate were visiting Ontario's lakes for the wedding rather than their honeymoon – and their match was a little less picture perfect.
As is tradition, the same actors – Dmitry Chepovetsky and Tamara Podemski, both strong – double up as Theseus and Hippolyta in Athens and Oberon and Titania in the fairy world. Rose's production makes the more distinct impression with the Athenians, and that includes the quartet of young Athenians who run away into the woods seeking love or other drugs.
Rose subtly complicates their initial love square. Hermia, a chaste, head-covered Sophia Kolinas, seems to be fond of Lysander largely because it irks her controlling father. Eric Morin's buff Lysander, meanwhile, seems destined to philander, giving Hermia's BFF Helena a goofy kiss as he passes her in the first scene and saying the word "bosoms" as if it were onomatopoeia for a pair of exploding bombs.
Sarah Sherman's slightly gawky Helena is enchantingly dorky, constantly power-walking her way around the stage in Lululemon gear.
She has a nice match in Ali Momen's uptight Demetrius, whose initial love for Hermia seems primarily motivated by an interest (financial? sexual?) in her father.
In short, all the partner-swapping in the woods seem as much motivated by already existent adolescent urges as the love juice that Gil Garratt's aggressive, pop-punk Puck spreads on their eyes.
Equally entertaining are the mechanicals – the amateur players who rehearse and then perform Pyramus and Thisbe for the wedding at the end of the play.
Nick Bottom (John Cleland, bombastic in a checkered suit) has been turned from a weaver into an overconfident real estate agent, a perfect little joke for a Dream performed in a bubble.
His co-stars are stagehands from a diverse background: Peter Quince becomes Pierre Le Coing, played with a French-Canadian accent by Pierre Simpson; Francis Flute becomes Francis Filchenkov, played in an Eastern European accent by Mark Crawford; and Tom Snout becomes Tom Chow, played by Richard Lee with what sounds like a Brooklyn accent. (There's a fourth mechanical, too, performed by a different audience member every night – in a participation bit that works.)
In his most inspired twist, Rose makes it so that, when Puck transforms Bottom into an ass, he also casts a spell over his fellow mechanicals – and they then double up as Titania's not-so-elfish servants, Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed.
Thanks to skillful lip-syncing to a recording of a child speaking their lines, this leads to the funniest sequence in the production (even if it does leave Podemski's Titania on the sidelines).
On opening night of this Dream, dedicated to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, Her Majesty also showed up to make a cameo in the final scene – that is, in the form of Scott Thompson. (I'm told there will be a different special guest every night.)
Finally, kudos to Rose for bringing the High Park Amphitheatre stage back to basics, getting rid of the balcony and letting the trees be the backdrop; if you're going to stage a show outdoors, stage it outdoors. The birds seemed to enjoy the show from their tweet seats as much as the rest of us did.
A Midsummer Night's Dream runs until Sept. 2, Tuesday to Sunday at 8 p.m., at Toronto's High Park Amphitheatre.