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Strollers Theatre's A Midsummer Night's Dream is a confusing yet engaging take on Shakespeare's comedy
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Strollers presents Shakespeare's double entendres with a heavy hand.
Credit:Jonathan J. Miner

The Strollers Theatre production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (through May 25 at the Bartell Theatre's Drury Stage) brings to mind psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung says dreams have logic, and Shakespeare seems to agree. The Bard set Midsummer in a dream world filled with kings, courts and mischief, all of which seem to function as symbols. Strollers gets the dreamy vibe right, but the dreamworld itself is far too complicated.

The first thing you'll notice is the three-person orchestra tucked beside the stage. Local experimental musicians Brothers Grimm and db pedersen kick off the production with a subtle original score. There's an East Asian feel to the music, informed in part by Brian Grimm's study of Chinese string instruments.

The rest of the play echoes this aesthetic, aside from the costumes, which resemble modern American outfits. Cherry blossoms -- or something like them -- line the enchanted forest of ancient Athens, where we meet the mythic duke Theseus (Matthew Korda). We also meet Puck (Sean Langenecker), a scene-stealing fairy in geisha-white makeup that complements his Ed Grimley-style hair and pansexual mannerisms. Puppets portray the play's other sprites.

The Asian elements and the classic Shakespearean loveplot are the most coherent parts of the play. Things are straightforward enough as we follow Theseus, who's preparing for his upcoming wedding to Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (Erin S. Baal). He is asked to judge a complaint Egeus (Mark Snowden) has lodged against his daughter, Hermia (Amanda Carroll), who is trying to escape an arranged marriage to Demetrius (Taran O'Reilly). She violates Athens' laws by fleeing to the forest to elope with her beau, Lysander (Trent Mendez). This is when things start to go awry.

Hermia soon meets bickering fairy royals Titania (Baal) and Oberon (Kathy Lynn Sliter), and a love polygon ensues. Strollers presents Shakespeare's double entendres with a heavy hand, using sexualized gestures to get the point across.

Casting Sliter as Oberon is puzzling choice. Actors are often double cast in Midsummer, but Oberon is normally portrayed by the same actor as Theseus. This might make sense if any of the other roles also bucked the double-casting tradition, but that's not the case here. And this is just the beginning of the weirdness. Sliter is also dressed in drag, which draws too much attention to her character. Strollers could have avoided this headache by making Oberon a woman.

The acting is a mixed bag. Several talented veterans help offset some wooden performances by newcomers. Consummate showman Joseph Lutz is enjoyable as the bumbling Nick Bottom, Andrea Kleiner puts the right mix of drive and emotion into the scorned Helena, and it is impossible to ignore Langenecker's Puck. The music's a great draw, too. But overall, the production feels like it wants to do too many different things. Dreams may be strange, but they usually make a little bit of sense.

[Editor's note: This story has been corrected to remove a reference to kabuki style of theater.]

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