BOSTON – They don’t make asses like they used to.
Of all the donkey outfits that Bottom has been fitted into in his “Midsummer Night’s Dream” transformation this is most likely the first time that his slippered feet became his ears, his legs turned into his body and his bare bottom — yes, the puns keep coming — stuck high in the air while the rest of him is crammed into a cart that the actor navigates around the stage with his right arm.
The concept, the latest ArtsEmerson grand import at the Cutler Majestic Theatre (through March 15), is the result of mixing and matching two wildly imaginative troupes — Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppet Company. The former is the oldest continuously running theater in England. But if the latter is a relatively new kid on the block you might have heard of one of its more recent productions — “War Horse.”
This is not, however, “War Donkey.” Except for the final, beautiful scene, this is puppetry in miniature, though no less in motion. Puck, the agent of mischief throughout, is a dog made up of an oil can, a wicker basket and a saw, manipulated and voiced by three different actors. Theseus, the lord of the faeries, holds a large ceramic head aloft and gestures with a giant arm — more Julie Taymor than “War Horse.”
The effect is often stunning. It gives Theseus and his queen, Hippolyta (she has a non-talking head, too), a grandeur that the rest of the cast — dressed more or less for a backwoods barbecue — don’t have. What they all have, however, are magnificent Shakespearean chops. What a pleasure it is to hear Elizabethan verse declaimed as clearly and as lustily as if they were doing “Wolf of Wall Street.” It’s as fine a classical ensemble as we’ve seen in these parts for years.
Here's the cast talking about it:
Those good vibes help get the production past its early rough patches. The opening looks like an ugly ceramics studio and the physical setting never gets more inspired than that. When actors aren’t in the scene they grab a piece of wood, as if they’re trees in the forest hovering over the proceedings while also providing more abstract masking and framing. It’s not the most wonderful piece of stagecraft in Bristol Old Vic’s repertoire.
Perhaps director Tom Morris simply wanted to keep the shenanigans gritty and unadorned with greenery. That earthy quality here is terrific. There are so many places in “Midsummer” that often sag. The four lovers who take to the wood — where they’re also transformed by Puck — are often a bore. These four are a riot. If you were casting a contemporary British remake of “Friends” you wouldn’t need to go further than this quartet.
David Ricardo-Pearce as Theseus/Oberon and Saskia Portway as Hippolyta/Titania have charisma to burn as the nobles and the Rude Mechanicals have all the right comedic moves. The physicality of the production is one of its great assets. It may not be as athletic as the American Repertory Theater’s recent “The Heart of Robin Hood,” but these actors’ contemporaneous body language matches their Elizabethan vocals.
And speaking of bodies, what a Bottom. Miltos Yerolemou arrives as the Athenian Bottom like Zorba on a bad hair day. His bluster – wanting to play both Pyramus and Thisbe in that aforementioned play within a play — is perfect never going over the top as so many actors in his position do. And when his position changes – to facedown in the cart – he all but runs away with the show.
Not quite, though, as everyone else is so good. The one thing they can’t conquer, though, is that in a production as ribald, farcical and spare as this one, the transformations are only skin deep. It’s not as if anyone onstage — forget the audience members — has come to any great realization about his or her self. Nothing magical or transcendent occurs.
That doesn’t stop this “Midsummer Night’s Dream” from being a tremendous amount of fun. Watching these artists find a new way of coming at Shakespeare from such a unique angle while having thorough command of his language is reward in itself.