An off-the-wall, casual approach to tried-and-true Shakespearean comedy can certainly work wonders. I still feel a surge of giddy delight whenever I recall last season's ebullient As You Like It at the Folger Theatre. What's lacking, then, in Washington Shakespeare Company's similar dressed-down approach to A Midsummer Night's Dream is the unwavering command of text, context and ensuing nuances that a director and cast must possess before even considering anything other than a straightforward approach.
It's no small omission from a successful formula. After sitting, unamused, through WSC's tiresome, trudging Midsummer, it's painfully obvious that director Lee Mikeska Gardner and the actors at her disposal have failed to rise to even a fundamental professional-grade grasp of the lyricism and impact of Shakespeare's language that make it worth presenting on the 21st-century stage.
For reasons that are beneficial, if at all, to the actors, but not -- hello! -- the audience, Gardner has taken Midsummer's twenty-plus characters and assigned them to an ensemble of only eight performers. Not only that, but, ostensibly, the actors have prepared to fill multiple multi-character roles and receive their assignments for any given performance by random drawing when the show begins. This amounts to an acting exercise gone awry, not entertainment. The ensemble struggles to compensate by pushing a forced familiarity and rapport on the audience. (A Christmas carol sing-a-long to start things off? No thanks.) Perhaps they're thinking it will earn them forgiveness as they inevitably fumble through Gardner's burdensome misconception of Midsummer's normally blithe proceedings.
It's clear the company is in over its head, and the audience is left out in the cold.
Through Jan. 4, 2003, at Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St. in Crystal City. Tickets are $22 to $30, with pay-what-you-can pricing for Sat. matinees. Call 703-418-4808. Visit www.washingtonshakespeare.org.