Nance Williamson, Joey Parsons, Jason O'Connell, Mark Bedard, Sean McNall star in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Eric Tucker, at the Pearl Theatre.
Nance Williamson, Joey Parsons, Jason O'Connell, Mark Bedard, Sean McNall star in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Eric Tucker, at the Pearl Theatre.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

When Eric Tucker directs a work by Shakespeare, audiences don't merely attend a play — they enter a playground. Tucker's Bedlam Theater Company, cofounded with fellow actor Andrus Nichols, made a big splash off-Broadway over the past couple of years with original, energetic stagings of Hamlet and Twelfth Night. Like those two, his new non-Bedlam production, A Midsummer Night's Dream, presented at the Pearl Theatre with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, bears all of the high-energy stamps of his direction: physically demanding theatrical feats from his actors and many playful liberties with Shakespeare's text.

That's not to say that Tucker alters the story. He still presents Shakespeare's elaborate tale of royals, rustics, forlorn lovers, and magical creatures — all played by five brilliant actors. The intricate plot revolves around sweethearts Lysander (Mark Bedard humorously channeling a surfer dude) and Hermia (played with over-the-top hysteria by Joey Parsons), along with Demetrius (a hilarious Sean McNall delivering lines with an earnest Spanish accent) and the woman who loves him, Helena (a delightfully daffy Nance Williamson). The four run off into a forest inhabited by sprites and fairies, and there Puck (Jason O'Connell in a virtuoso performance) accidentally causes Lysander to fall in love with Helena. He is also the reason the queen of the fairies (Parsons) falls in love with Bottom (O'Connell), who has been magically changed into a donkey. Countless complications and shenanigans ensue until wrongs are righted and lovers united.

Tucker's Midsummer is one of unbridled exuberance. Scenic designer John McDermott (assisted by Clifton Chadick and Ken Larson) creates a colorful mood with a fluorescent-bordered, sandbox-like stage illuminated by black light (Leslie Smith assisting with lighting design). And Cassie Defile's costumes — jumpsuits sporting bright, iridescent stripes — contribute to the production's untraditional, playful look and feel.

But that's just the beginning. In the opening scene, Tucker's actors clue us in to the fact that this is no typical Midsummer, with the introductory passage repeated three times with all the characters taking turns with the lines. From that point on, we're treated to a nonstop show of physical humor and hilarious allusions to modern film, theater, and music, such as when the cast hums "The Girl From Ipanema" while they huddle together in a jumble of bodies, suggesting how hard it is for the lovers to communicate.

Tucker demands a lot from his actors, and he has pulled out magnificent and, one would have to suspect, exhausting performances from each of them. All the play's characters are made distinct by creative changes in voices, mannerisms, and staging. The fairy king, Oberon (Bedard), is indicated by the splayed fingers of other actors behind his head, suggesting a radiant halo. The dim-witted rustic Snug is played by two actors (Bedard and Williamson) who lean their heads against each other and utter Snug's lines in sync with a slack-jawed dopiness that gets chuckles from the audience. O'Connell, however, stands out for his impressive portrayals of Puck and Bottom, mimicking the behavior of a winged insect for the former and a truculent donkey for the latter with uncanny realism. His rendition of Bottom's Pyramus speech, done in the voice and style of Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski, brings down the house.

This production may feel disconcerting to those who expect a traditional production of Midsummer, and given Tucker's innovative treatment, it could prove initially confusing for those who have not encountered the work before on page or stage. But Tucker and his troupe lend an unexpected magic and hilarity to this comedy that you're not likely to see anywhere else — a perfect example of Shakespeare at play.