A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Burning Coal Theatre
Through March 18

It seems only fair to warn you: This critic is confronting a considerable degree of nostalgia in Burning Coal’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Truly long-lived theater-goers in the region will recall that the last time actor/director David Henderson’s name was associated with this play, he brought both distinction and belly-laughs to the role of Bottom, in an outdoors Theatre in the Park production in July 1994.

I remember the show well. It was the subject of my first published review as a theater critic.

A thousand bylines later, I can still recall his character, abandoned on stage and stripped of his fake sword, being ignominiously forced to end his life (in Dream‘s intentionally wretched play-within-a-play, that most lamentable comedy, Pyramus and Thisbe) with his own bare hands around his throat. At the time, I compared the sweat and physical desperation of Henderson’s robust comic acting, under Ira David Wood’s direction, to the work of John Belushi.

If a ghost or two is hanging around this show for me, at least they’ve brought along some fairly high standards to be matched. It’s good to report that this production exceeds them with some frequency.

Since Henderson has relocated Shakespeare’s Athens to a post-Katrina New Orleans, the palette of Chris Bernier’s seemingly ad hoc set design emphasizes blue tarps and random elements in mud, as carnival beadsand a battered shopping cart or twograce the otherwise denuded limbs of trees onstage.

Though it is Mardi Gras at the start of this multilayer situation comedy, few are the lovers who see eye to eye. In the magical forest, fairy king Oberon is ill-met by moonlight indeed. Actor Howard Hansen makes him a grouchy, bottom-land Cajun in a mossy highwayman’s coat; his stringy, dirty blond hair plastered to his skull, his scepter a half-empty bottle of Jack black. Small wonder his viridian consort, Titania (an amused Carolyn McKenna), has put him out.

Things are scarcely better in the realm of the mundane. King Theseus has just discovered that wooing by the sword guarantees everything except domestic tranquility with intended bride Hippolyta, while a quartet of young upwardly mobiles keeps themselvesand their parents busy by pursuing the one partner they can’t or shouldn’t have.

Since Ashlee Quinones’ feisty Hermia and Joel Horton’s Lysandera character who comes off just a bit too average an average Joe in this productionare already in love with one another, the universe will conspire to complicate matters.

Enter the decidedly casual Demetrius (Stephen LeTrent), who’s in love with Hermia. Enter Mary Floyd’s excitable Helena, who’s in love with Demetrius. And enter Philip Mutz’ nimbly delectable Puck, who complicates things further with potent fluid from a certain magical flower.

Still, this Dream is the second work we’ve recently seen that doesn’t find its truest footing until the second half. After misdirecting magic that sets the four young lovers at each others’ throats, Puck sits back to watch, spellboundmunching from a box of popcorn, on the side. Floyd’s Helena switches from desire to comic horror when Demetrius finally goes for herand Lysander immediately follows suit. Director Henderson sends the quartet through some impromptu lindy dancing when the two swains have to keep the warring women apart.

And we haven’t even gotten to the Rude Mechanicals yet, whose tragical production of Pyramus and Thisbe had the audience convulsing with laughter on the night we saw it. Carl Martin helms this doomed production as a hammy Bottom, with Sam Whisnant’s Snout a laconic techie who nervelessly drinks his beer as the show falls apart around him. If anything, Henderson’s restaging is funnier than his own stand of 13 years agowhich took more than a bit of doing.

Even with judicious cuts, a running time of two hours flat signals that this cast has been commanded not to tarry over lines. The night we saw it, Joel Horton unfortunately overdosed on the advice, blurting dialogue repeatedly. Though the ensemble arguably skates the subtext in places, this Dream never drags. After the catharticand repeatedlaughter of the second half, we’re prepared to forgive this show for a lot more than we have to.

The Bluest Eye

Playmakers Repertory Company
Through March 25

It’s one of the eeriest moments we’ve seen this year. Two young girls (Allison Reeves and Georgia Southern), dressed identically alike, are relating the gruesome details of another girl’s partially interrupted dive into sheer madnessand they are doing so with all the matter-of-factness of a discussion of tomorrow’s weather.

Whether or not director Trezana Beverley actually saw The Shining is immaterial at this point. When her taut production of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye puts the unspeakable in the mouths of babes, the chills flow from the Playmakers Rep stage like an electric current. The cruelty of distance in Morrison’s ground-breaking novel and this production underlines our inability to intervene. So we watch, as the thin props keeping Danika Williams’ poignant Pecola just above the waves of darkness are slowly pulled away, one by one.

Actor Adrian Bailey’s range is formidable as Cholly, who first appears as a naïve young loverbefore metamorphosizing into something entirely else. Lou Ferguson’s turn as trickster figure Soaphead Church is audaciously profaneas is his means of doing business. The warmth in Kathryn Hunter Williams’ irascible Mama cools profoundlyand appropriatelyin Joanna Rhinehart’s portrayal of Pecola’s real mother, Mrs. Breedlove.

As they and others look on, a young girl is fallingslowly at first, and then gradually faster. Repeatedly, almost any one of them could catch her. A few actually tryat least to a point. But when no one really caresor cares enoughtheir arms can’t span the distance.

And so the young girls fall. They’re still falling, into blighted pregnancies, into drugs, into madness, into death. You can see them, every day, in every high school. If, that is, you’re brave enough to look.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.