Theater review: "Midsummer" madness at Serenbe

Before she makes her grand entrance, you can see the actor waiting in the wings, attended by courtesans. Sometimes, you can hear her having a bit of a diva meltdown, too.

She bellows. She brays. And if you'll forgive us for saying so in a family newspaper, she makes quite an ass of herself.

Maybe that's because she's a real-life donkey — the first creature Titania glimpses when she awakens from her flower-induced coma in the Serenbe Playhouse production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Though her name is not listed in the program, she is Harvest, the Serenbe farm animal recruited to play Bottom in this site-specific production, which cleverly uses the pristine landscape of this Chattahoochee Hills community to suggest the mysteries of the Athenian wood.

This production is by no means faithful to the Bard's 400-year-old tale of Athenian royals, rude mechanicals, young lovers and mischievous fairies.

Instead, playhouse artistic director Brian Clowdus organizes the convoluted comedy into an orderly, 90-minute one act that transports the quarreling quartet of lovers to the era of beehives, poodle skirts and shiny Chevy Bel Airs. And he superimposes the romantic chaos onto an immortal backdrop that marries elements of local history (the Civil War, the boll weevil infestation of the early 20th century) with references to Native American and African-American folklore and dance.

The play, which the director trims and tweaks to suit his theme, begins with a sort of introductory sequence on the site of an old homestead at the edge of the Serenbe property. Audience members are then invited to follow the parade of fairies and find their seats among the mismatched chairs that surround the al fresco "stage."

Soon, Oberon (Brian Kurlander) and Puck (the astonishing Caitlin Reeves) have sewn their mischief — to the strains of "Mr. Sandman" and "All I Have to Do Is Dream." And before you know it, Titania (Jessica Miesel) is lying in congress with Bottom (played by Ralph Del Rosario before "Harvest" takes over). And the flustered Helena (Erin Burnett) pursues a very vexed Demetrius (Justin Walker), while Hermia (Laura Floyd) deals with the fickle Lysander (Kenneth Mayfield).

This nimble, often scantily dressed ensemble is required to perform intricate choreography and get wrestled to the ground. Yet they never seem to mind all the dirt, sweat and grass that comes with the job.

The notion of a theatrical journey that requires patrons to move from one installation to the next has lately come into vogue at venues like The Goat Farm. Though it can be just a little discombobulating to navigate the contours of the landscape on a hot steamy night, it's worth the effort. Even in 100-degree heat, on loping farmland, this "Midsummer" is a lively, unexpected alternative to conventional Elizabethan fare.

For those who have always wanted to see this comedy performed as an erotic bacchanal under the light of a midsummer moon in a place "where the wild thyme grows," this production does not disappoint.

When you escape the confines of walls and proscenia, anything can happen. You can decorate the woods with whimsy and filigree. You can have a character arrive in a vintage car, horn honking and headlights blaring. But what you can never predict, and what elevates this play to the stuff of magic, are the unscripted moments like the lonely cry of a whippoorwill or the unharnessed outburst of a donkey-thespian. That's when we mortals know it's heehaw time.

Theater review

"A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Grade: B

8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays. Through July 15. $15-$25. Serenbe Playhouse, 9065 Selborne Lane, Chattahoochee Hills. (Look for signs on the Atlanta Newnan Road, before the main Serenbe entrance.) 770-463-1110, serenbeplayhouse.com

Bottom line: What fools these Serenbe mortals be.