Magical ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Cal Shakes 

click to enlarge Nicholas Pelczar (second from left), Lauren English (center), and Dan Clegg (second from right) appear in California Shakespeare Theater’s ethereal production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” - COURTESY KEVIN BERNE
  • Nicholas Pelczar (second from left), Lauren English (center), and Dan Clegg (second from right) appear in California Shakespeare Theater’s ethereal production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
If it’s magic you want, director Shana Cooper’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at California Shakespeare Theater has it in rich abundance.

There’s spooky magic in the way that fairy queen Titania’s shadowy attendants slink around her.

There’s the magic spell that enchants the entire forest to which the lovers Hermia (a delightfully acrobatic and ferocious Tristan Cunningham) and Lysander (Dan Clegg as a seductive bad boy) flee, and into which Hermia-smitten Demetrius (a comical, intensely focused Nicholas Pelczar) pursues them and Demetrius-smitten Helena (a vulnerable and desperate Lauren English) follows him.

It’s a spell that not only scrambles the foursome’s love-wires but also manipulates them physically, even when they’re asleep, in Erika Chong Shuch’s dance-like, trance-like choreography. (Chong Shuch’s roles as Titania and Hippolyta were performed by an understudy the night I was there, as were one of James Carpenter’s two roles.)

And of course there’s the mischievous fairy Puck, played with diabolical glee by comic genius Danny Scheie, whose subtle mannerisms make him seem ever-so-slightly, weirdly, not human.

In contemporary but non-specific costumes (by Katherine O’Neill), the actors perform on a forest-like floor, with stacks of logs in the background (set by Nina Ball). The backdrop opens up to the Orinda hills at a certain point; no more set than this is needed to capture the play’s ethereal ambiance, especially as illuminated by lighting designer Burke Brown.

As to the Rude Mechanicals: Despite sharp characterizations by some of the Bay Area’s finest actors – Margo Hall as a strutting, self-important Nick/Bottom, Liam Vincent as the theatrical troupe’s beleaguered director, Scheie as a squeaky-voiced Snug/Lion and towering Craig Marker as a hilariously earnest Thisby — the “Pyramus and Thisby” sections don’t quite achieve their comic potential until the play’s final scene.

In all, though, this “Midsummer” beautifully evokes the dark undertones of Shakespeare’s enchanted realm.

As well, it reveals the equally dark notes to be found in a tale in which romantic love is just as fickle and inexplicable as love can truly be (“My love for Hermia melted as the snow,” declares the faithless Demetrius, compelled by Puck’s magic to lust for Helena). Cooper’s directorial vision extends that pervasive sense of missed and almost-missed connections of the heart to encompass more characters than you might expect.

It is a “Midsummer” in which Puck’s final advice to the audience--to imagine that you have “but slumbered here/While these visions did appear”— resonates fully.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Presented by California Shakespeare Theater

Where: Bruns Amphitheatre, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 28

Tickets: $20 to $72

Contact: (510) 548-9666,

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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