Still displaced from its regular venue at the Woodruff Arts Center while putting the finishing touches on a yearlong renovation of its own space (reopening in January), the Alliance Theatre begins its 50th anniversary season with a disappointing, rather straining outdoor rendering of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Atlanta Botanical Garden that’s alternately compressed and overblown, half-baked and overheated.
The show is another product from the adventurous imagination of David Catlin, the longtime member of Chicago’s celebrated Lookingglass Theatre who conceived and directs it. Avid local audiences will remember his earlier Lookingglass adaptations of “Lookingglass Alice” and “Moby Dick,” both of which played at the Alliance (in 2010 and 2016, respectively).
While Catlin’s “Midsummer” doesn’t rely on the same level of Cirque du Soleil-ish acrobatics or special effects as either of those earlier works, it’s every bit as physically strenuous – making up the difference, as it were, by laying things on with an exaggerated shtickiness that often obscures the more magical and lyrical (and coherent) elements of the classic romantic fantasy. Imagine all the activity of a three-ring circus taking place in only one ring, with a cast of six exerting all the effort traditionally entrusted to three or four times as many actors.
Make no mistake: That they are led by the equally commanding and qualified Courtney Patterson and Joe Knezevich, fellow artistic associates of the former Georgia Shakespeare (among other acclaimed credits around town), is a distinct blessing.
Patterson has rarely seemed quite as radiant as she does here playing the regal fairy queen, Titania, or as delightful as she is doubling as the impish forest sprite, Puck. And Knezevich’s scene-stealing, scenery-chewing turns as the bombastic fairy king, Oberon, and as the jocular jackass, Bottom, are a singularly hilarious hoot. (Although he’s pictured in the company’s ads and production photos on stilts in that latter role, he wasn’t so equipped on opening night.)
Completing the ensemble as interchangeable mismatched lovers and “rude mechanicals” are Atlanta actress Devon Hales and Chicago-based co-stars Adeoye, Ericka Ratcliff and Travis Turner. In a modernized twist, they’re now a team of gardeners preparing to perform a play-within-a-play-within-a-play for the impending wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta from Athens (to which one of them exclaims in passing, “Yay! Go Dawgs!”).
For Catlin’s purposes, “Midsummer,” the first of those plays within, is not without its lovely stylistic touches. Note the beautifully atmospheric lighting design of Lesley Boeckman, or one show-stopping rain sequence, or several other nicely done musical interludes featuring original songs by Rick Sims — scoring most effectively in standout numbers by Hales and Patterson, if much less so in Knezevich’s raucous rock ’n’ roll routine.
But even condensed to a frantically paced 90-odd minutes, the Alliance production finally feels gimmicky and nonsensical to an extreme, somehow a bit slow and drawn out. Just when you think it has culminated innocuously enough, there’s the whole extraneous enactment of that secondary play within, all about the tragic shenanigans of Pyramus and Thisby — at least providing Knezevich with one of the longest and funniest death scenes ever, if little else.
Most regrettably, perhaps, the show doesn’t fully capitalize on its unique Botanical Garden setting, either. The play’s “moonlight revels” take place in a “forest primeval,” but you never get a very true sense of the natural environment. It’s performed in-the-round on a handsome, multitiered set by Kat Conley, and yet the stage is basically enclosed inside a circus tent (albeit open-aired and minus the proverbial “big top”) that ultimately could be pitched anywhere else.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Through Oct. 21. 10:30 a.m. Saturday (Sept. 29 only); 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (Oct. 6-7, 13, and 20-21 only); 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays (Oct. 10 and 17 only); all other performances are sold out. $54-$79. Skyline Garden (at the Atlanta Botanical Garden), 1345 Piedmont Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org. (Check website for any weather-related announcements.)
Bottom line: Less lighthearted than heavy-handed.
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