Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream as a fun show for audiences in 1595. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, staging the play outdoors in the ruins of Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, proves it can still be fun 410 years later.
It is a situation comedy about romantic mix-ups. Lysander and Demetrius are both in love with Hermia. She loves Lysander, but her father wants her to marry Demetrius. A young woman named Helena is mad for Demetrius, but he has no interest in her.
Hermia appeals to the local duke, Theseus. Preoccupied with his forthcoming marriage to Hippolyta, Theseus upholds Hermia's father's decision.
Lysander persuades Hermia to run off with him. They agree to meet that night in a forest outside the town - and here the play enters the world of the supernatural.
The forest is inhabited by a band of fairies ruled by Oberon, the king, and Titania, the queen. They, too, are having romantic problems. They have separated after an argument, and Oberon plans to use his magical powers to win Titania back.
Now we meet a third group of characters: a party of workmen who have come to the forest to rehearse a play which they hope to present at the duke's marriage celebration.
Peter Quince, a carpenter, is the director, but the proceedings are dominated by a weaver called Nick Bottom. He represents a type with whom all theater people are familiar: the untalented clod who gets the theater bug and thinks he is the greatest thing that ever stepped onto a stage.
Oberon, aided by a mischievous sprite called Puck, casts spells on the characters. Both of them make mistakes which add to the confusion. Lysander falls out of love with Hermia and in love with Helena, bringing distress to Hermia and Demetrius. Bottom grows the head of a donkey, and Titania, awakening from a sleep, goes mad for him.
Shakespeare works out the comic ramifications of these situations in ludicrous love scenes between the fairy queen and the donkey's head and angry confrontations among the young lovers, all broadly written and broadly acted.
Of course, everything ends happily, with all the couples united and the workmen clumsily performing their play at the duke's wedding.
Director Ian Gallanar keeps the show moving with an inexhaustible flow of comic business. He makes ingenious use of the stone wall that forms his backdrop, staging action in windows on various levels and even at the top of the wall. His actors put Shakespeare's meaning across with modern American inflections and facial expressions.
Turning in attractive performances as the young lovers are Aimee Lambing (Hermia), Rebecca Ellis (Helena), Jacob Rothermel (Lysander) and Jonathan Judge Russo (Demetrius). Chuck Leonard is a suave Theseus, and Elizabeth Gilbert makes the most of the few lines allotted to Hippolyta.
Frank B. Moorman is a benign Oberon; Wayne Willinger a burly but agile Puck. Lesley Malin is graceful and assured as Titania.
Patrick Kilpatrick works hard as Bottom, and Nathan Thomas plays the long-suffering Peter Quince. The other "rude mechanicals" are played by Bob Alleman, John Sadowsky, Ryan Whinnen and Charlie Mitchell (the latter doing double duty as Hermia's father, Egeus).
Audience members are invited to arrive early with a picnic dinner. Preshow entertainment includes demonstrations of stage combat, a comic skit incorporting familiar lines from many of Shakespeare's plays and an interval of belly dancing.
The costume designers, Kristina Lambdin and Jeanne Robin, have dressed Titania and her band of fairies, all played by slim, young women, in belly-dancing attire.
The mortals wear attractive 1920s fashions, and pop songs of the period by Cole Porter and others are played before the show and sung during it. Shakespeare, with his timeless vision, comes through all this loud and clear.
The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presents "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday through June 26 at Patapsco Female Institute, 3691 Sarahs Lane, Ellicott City. General admission available in advance or at the gate: $20; $18 for those older than 65 and those ages 11 to 18; admission free for children ages 10 and younger. Free parking is available in the Howard County Courthouse lot on Court House Drive. Tickets: 866-811-4111, or www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com. Information: 410-752-3994.