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Chesapeake Shakespeare Company inaugurates new home with buoyant 'Midsummer'

If the spirit of the Bard were to appear to the members of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in their terrific new home, he'd surely quote one of his lines from "The Tempest": "Be merry; you have cause."

There is abundant reason for high spirits during the venue's inaugural production, "A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The troupe's downtown Baltimore theater, formed out of a handsome 19th-century bank building that deserved the makeover, is a lively place, visually and atmospherically. It represents a triumph of enterprise and dedication on the part of the 12-year-old company, until now focused mostly on outdoor, summertime productions in Ellicott City.

In the span of a couple years, Chesapeake Shakespeare managed to raise a lot of money. Another $1 million is needed for the $6.7 million project, but that shouldn't be too tough once word gets out what a cool place has resulted.

Although there are other people performing Shakespeare in Baltimore, the city has not had a large-scale operation devoted primarily to the uber-dramatist since the demise of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival three years ago. And that group was best known for outdoor work, so the arrival of an indoor, well-appointed facility is a big deal.

Fashioned with a nod to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London, this venue, with seating for 260 on levels that rise vertically on three sides of the stage, puts the audience close to the action. And you can count on there being lots of action, because that's the way the company does things. This bunch prefers its fourth wall porous.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" neatly shows off Chesapeake Shakespeare's assets and ethos. The almost-in-the-round arrangement limits options for props onstage, but not for atmosphere, thanks to scenic and lighting designer Daniel O'Brien. Kristina Lambdin's more or less turn-of-the-century costumes also deliver plenty of color, mood and, at key moments, humor.

Company founder Ian Gallanar directs the show with a fine sense of timing — the physical shtick that ends Act 1 is an especially effective example — and quite a few fresh, laugh-generating ideas. The domains of rustics, royals and fairies in the play are neatly delineated, but the little threads that connect them come through as well.

Gallanar inserts a lot of music, much of it performed by the actors. Stylistically, the selections don't always fit the staging's look and feel (songs of Tin Pan Alley or British music hall vintage would be right at home), but they do help underline the continued relevance of Shakespeare.

In a particularly apt touch, Tom Waits' "Innocent When You Dream" serves as the musical entry point, sung with an affecting simplicity by Gregory Burgess, who then goes on to have a field day inhabiting the role of Bottom. The actor's funny, supple performance has a lot to do with the success of this buoyant "Midsummer."

Same for Vince Eisenson. His portrayal of Puck isn't particularly elfish (the character seems here like a distant, benign ancestor of the emcee in "Cabaret"), but it's high-energy. And Eisenson tosses in a lot of droll touches, notably a way of slipping into an Elvis voice when you least expect it.

Another bit of voice-shifting comes very amusingly from the Bobby Henneberg, as Flute, whether rolling his 'R's  like crazy or, in his drag scene during the play-within-a-play, going all Blanche DuBois.

The two pairs of crisscrossed lovers are brought vibrantly to life by Rachel Jacobs (Hermia), Travis Hudson (Lysander), Audrey Bertaux (Helena) and James Jager (Demetrius). Other standouts include David Mavricos (Theseus) and Jeff Keogh (Quince).

Not all the actors in the large cast are equally assured, and several tend to over-emphasize rhyming patterns in the text. But the net result is quite cohesive, and certainly engaging. This high-octane production makes a great way for Chesapeake Shakespeare Company to hang out its shingle in Baltimore.

'A Midsummer Night's Dream' runs through Oct. 12.

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