A fine Frenzy – a review of Pittsburgh Public Theater’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Mike Buzzelli
Theseus (Keith Lee Grant) is preparing for his wedding day to Queen Hpppolyta (Portia) and all of the townsfolk of Athens are in a tizzy in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem.”
P.S. Harlem is Athens. Athens is Harlem. Don’t get hung up on it.
Note: Aside from a 125th Street sign, the play isn’t physically linked to any place on the isle of Manhattan. The play, as explained by Justin Emeka in the program notes, is spiritually connected to Harlem. Think Shakespeare with a funky Afro-Caribbean vibe.
What is important is that Hermia (Saige Smith) is betrothed to Demetrius (Brende Peifer) but she’s in love with Lysandra (Amara Granderson, a gender-swapped Lysander), and poor Helena (June Alvilda Almonte) is crushing hard on Demetrius, creating a love quadrangle.
Deep in the woods (reminder: Harlem is more of a theme than a place), Oberon (Keith Lee Grant in a dual role) seeks to snatch a changeling Boy (Akinlana Lowman) away from Queen Titania (Portia, also in a dual role). The King of the Fairies enlists Puck (Jaris Owens) to aid him in his schemes to thwart Titania.
Meanwhile the Mechanicals, Quince (E. Mani Cadet), Bottom (Andre G. Brown), Flute (Harry J. Hawkins, IV) and the rest are producing “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe” as a tribute to Theseus and the Queen of the Amazons on their impending wedding day.
When Oberon takes pity on Helena, he instructs Puck to help her by hitting Demetrius with the love potion, but he mistakes Lysandra for Demetrius and things go off the rails. The love quadrangle is mangled into a love dodecahedron, and Lysandra and Demetrius fight for Helena while Hermia is scorned by her former lover.
As Shakespeare reminds us, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” but, boy, do things get complicated!
Demetrius (Brendan Piefer) carries Hermia (Saige Smith) away.
Director Justin Ameka has tight reins on the entire affair. It is a glorious spectacle with powerful drum solos by Akinlana Lowman.
Portia’s monologues are exquisitely delivered. She is a powerful presence on stage. It’s easy to believe she is a Fairy Queen or an Amazonian warrior.
Brenden Piefer’s Demetrius is pure energy. He is a loose-limbed creature who juts and struts all over the stage. He exudes joy.
It’s easy to see why anyone would fight for Hermia’s love. Smith is radiant in the role.
Almonte’s Helena brings some strong laughs, and – unlike past productions of the play – seems much more worthy of the unfair advantage Oberon gives her.
When Demetrius and Lysandra fight for Helena’s attention, both Piefer and Granderson use every possible comedic movement in the book – and create new ones. The scene is flawlessly choreographed by Jose Perez, IV.
The Mechanicals were always meant to be hapless goons badly attempting to complete an art project, but they are wonderfully absurd under Emeka’s direction. Brown’s Bottom is a marvelous buffoon. Cadet’s Quince is – in the words of my friend Orlando Ashley – a Church Gay – one of those pious queens who could have easily been cast as a choir director in a Tyler Perry movie.
The set is a masterpiece by Anka Lupes. An African mask hangs high above the actor’s heads and it is a character unto itself.
Demeatria Boccella’s costumes are stunning, particularly on Portia (in both roles). Her choice to drape the Mechanicals in urban blue collar streetwear was inspired. It defined them in a way unlike any other version of the play before it.
The play ends with a joyous group of weddings – three couples tie the knot/ jump the broom.
“Midsummer Night’s Dream” is exuberant, a joy to behold. A brilliant bouncy bit of fun for a midwinter evening.
“Midsummer’s Night Dream in Harlem” runs through February 17th at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, go here.

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