This year's Shakespeare Festival starts off with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" come true. 

A Sexy "Midsummer"

There's no denying the sexiness of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," what with lusty lovers chasing each other through the woods and all. But in the production that leads off this summer's Richmond Shakespeare Festival, director Steve Forth brings physicality to the forefront with unexpected bravado, having scantily clad fairies slither about and passionate characters paw at each other at every turn. There's nothing vulgar here (well, maybe just a couple things), and the sensual staging is complemented by robust performances, particularly by the cast's women. Forth makes good use of the Agecroft Hall setting, sometimes spreading out the action to encompass the historic home's entire lawn. His expansive vision results in a thoroughly satisfying production, often silly but never simpleminded, overall an excellent segue into the sweaty days of summer.

Doing much of the sweating onstage are the leading female characters, Hermia (Lindsay Allen) and Helena (Valerie Fenton). Though formerly friends, the two women find themselves caught in a lover's quadrangle. Hermia loves Lysander (Frank Faucette) but is betrothed to Demetrius (Benjamin Stone). Demetrius pines for Hermia, rejecting the affections of Helena. Hermia and Lysander decide to elope into the woods but there they fall prey to pranks played by the woodland fairies. Into this imbroglio waltzes a comically inept acting troupe whose lead actor, Bottom (Scott Wichmann), is turned into a jackass and then becomes the object of the Fairy Queen's affections. If you're confused just rest assured that, thanks to a fair amount of magical mischief, each lover ends up happy and hitched.

Fenton is a delight as Helena, at first shamelessly eager in her fawning over Demetrius, then enraged by his changing affections. Allen throws herself into the role of Hermia, getting literally turned upside down during her catfight with Helena. The men also all do well, especially Stone who traverses the range from rejecter to rejectee with aplomb.

The band of fairies is a comely bunch, from the buff Fairy King, Oberon (Mark Williams), to the trio of beautiful sprites who dance and sing in superb celebration. As the mischievous Puck, Ethan Oulton has some tawdry charm, too, though he's most fun to watch being manhandled by Oberon. Even with the relatively small role of Bottom, Wichmann nearly runs away with the show, his over-the-top comic riffs and slapstick pratfalls dominating every scene he's in.

I can't adequately comment on the technical aspects of this show as many glitches were still being worked out during the preview performance I saw. But here, too, Forth has ambitious ideas, working with designer Ro O'Hayden to construct a two-tier set complete with a staircase that splits open to reveal a fairy hide-out. Sound designer Jay Clayton punctuates many moments with interesting musical selections; a snippet of "Shaft" during one scene makes for a subtle sonic joke.

Forth pushes the envelope a bit with this production's striking (though still PG-rated) sensuality, but in doing so, he nudges "A Midsummer Night's Dream" into an intriguing new light. For those up for a little moonlit mischief, this show is simply dreamy.


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