Theatre: A bewitching Midsummer Night's Dream in Toronto

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Director Rick Roberts transposes A Midsummer Night's Dream into the 20th century with few props or colours, but this minimalist approach is the ideal contrast to the comedy's froth and fury. Roberts' vision allows the play's treatment of tyranny -- parental, monarchical, and magical -- and romantic tomfoolery to shine through.

The heavy hand of the Athenian autocracy has already fallen in the opening scene: Hermia loves Lysander, but has been promised to Demetrius; Duke Theseus has agreed with her father Egeus that this contract be honoured. The Duke's fiancée Hippolyta lingers in the background, clearly displeased with the outcome.

A robust quartet of young Athenians is entangled in this turmoil, because it includes Helena who pines for Demetrius -- much to his chagrin. The performances are as uneven as this love "triangle": Mike Ross' Lysander gleefully skates through the iambic pentameter and Brendan Wall's Demetrius ably struts onstage, but the miscast Abena Malika stumbles through Hermia's dialogue and Karen Rae's melodic voice lacks substance in Helena's meatier scenes.

The young Athenians escape to the woods where the fairy kingdom is also in strife. Oberon, king of the fairies, is in a domestic dispute with his queen Titania and wishes to teach her a lesson. He asks his servant Puck to find a magical flower called love-in-idleness which causes its victims to fall in love with the first person they see. The meddling Puck is more than happy to oblige. (Gregory Prest's Puck gains steam after a lacklustre beginning: he injects more energy -- and a Russian accent -- into his performance.)

As Duke Theseus and Oberon, King of the Fairies, Ins Choi had the dialogue down pat, but needed to cut a more ominous figure. Trish Lindström was ethereal and seductive in her roles as Hippolyta and Oberon's betrothed Titania -- and the hooded entourage of flashlight-bearing fairies only enhanced her presence. (They also doubled as a makeshift chorus using wind chimes and stuttering drums to produce a lyrical score.)

The antics of the "rude Mechanicals" (so named by Puck for their occupation as skilled labourers) are the perfect juxtaposition to this royal wrangling. This aging troupe of thespians is rehearsing for Pyramus and Thisbe, a production they to hope to showcase to the Athenian royals.

Oliver Dennis' Bottom the weaver is a force of nature: he plays Pyramus with the subtlety of an errant buffalo while Michael Simpson's Flute the bellows-mender gives a side-splitting rendition of Thisbe. The bit players -- Derek Boyes, Michael Hanrahan, John Jarvis -- also display impressive comedic chops.

When they venture near Titania's bower to rehearse, nocturnal misadventures ensue: Bottom inherits a donkey's head -- one of Puck's devilish pranks -- and then collides with an already-drugged Titania who makes him the object of her obsession. Puck has also accidentally stupefied Lysander and does the same to Demetrius so that the hapless Helena goes from no suitors to two.

When order is restored at Oberon's command, Bottom awakens and decides that he has dreamed a dream "past the wit of man" and returns in time for the Mechanicals' royal debut. The final death scene is a riot with a coquettish, chest-beating Thisbe and a bombastic Pyramus who uses no fewer than five knives for his protracted suicide.

When Puck reminds us that these visions were but a dream, we are left bewildered by the passage of time. Indeed, in Roberts' Midsummer Night's Dream, time flies.

A Soulpepper Theatre production. Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Rick Roberts. Starring: Ins Choi, Trish Lindström, Oliver Dennis, Mike Ross, Michael Simpson.
Extended to April 23 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street. 416-866-8666.

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