By Victoria Weisfeld
Yes, you read that right. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey ends its 2023 season with a reworking of that hit comedy of the 1590s, usually set in much warmer months. Under the direction of the theater’s incoming artistic director, Brian Crowe, this holiday version, first staged at STNJ in 2002, opened last weekend and runs through the entire month of December. It’s a delight from beginning to end!
The essential dual-roles—dwellers of both Athens and the fairy kingdom—are all there. René Thornton, Jr., plays Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Oberon, king of the fairies; Jessica Ires Morris plays Hippolyta and Titania; and Billie Wyatt plays Philostrate and Puck. Actors in other Dream productions have told me that by the time rehearsals are over, they’re ready to strangle Puck—too coy, too annoying, too too. Wyatt’s Puck, though, is exuberant, mischievous, and just right.
In fact, all the Athenians also appear as winter fairies with appropriately wintry names. The aptly-named Christian Frost plays both spurned suitor Demetrius and the fairy Frostbite (you can imagine behind-the-scenes shenanigans with that one!) and Isaac Hickox-Young plays the ardent lover Lysander/Blizzard. They’re strong in these physical roles, as are their would-be partners: Emily S. Chang as Hermia/Snowpea; and Fiona Robberson as Helena/Holly.
You’ll recall that a group of the city’s tradesmen forms the cast of a misguided play about star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, which they want to perform for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. I’ve seen productions in which that play-within-a-play grows tiresome, but this version was so cleverly dramatized and so well acted, I enjoyed every minute. Kudos to Jeffrey Marc Alkins (Peter Quince/playwright/Flake), Darin F. Earl II (Starveling/Sugarplum), James Frances Egbert (Tom Snout/Wall/Snowball), David Foubert (Nick Bottom, Pyramus, Donkey), Keith Hale (Francis Flute/Thisbe/Mistletoe) and Eric Hoffman (Egeus/Lion/Snug). As the “lovers,” Hale and Foubert displayed genius comic timing.
Aside from the characters’ names, fewer than 100 lines of Shakespeare’s 2,100-line text needed alteration to turn summer to winter. These adaptations do nothing to dilute the comedy; in fact, they infuse the story with fresh ideas, liveliness, and renewed audience appreciation. I haven’t even mentioned the snowball fight or the superb music cues that lead to magic, right before your eyes.
The set design is flexible and beautiful, lit in many different ways, but always with your attention drawn to the glowing pearl of a moon. The costumes are creative, beautiful, and easy to get in and out of, since characters must transition quickly from citizen to winter fairy and back many times.
Crowe says, “I cannot think of a better way to enter into the holiday season.” I heartily agree, and you will too.
Production credits to Brian Ruggaber (set design), Andrew Hungerford (lighting design), Drew Sensue-Weinstein (sound design/composer), Yao Chen (costume design), and Robert Long (choral music director).
STNJ productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.