Someday I'll have to stop being surprised by how good the DaVinci Players' productions are. They're always turning out to be pretty good, so where's the surprise?
It's just that the troupe specializes in giving chances to young or comparatively inexperienced actors, and at similar companies, you never know what the results might be. But the DaVinci Players, a program of the Studio Connections arts-learning center, blends in performers and directors with more extensive résumés, making sure that every production is built on a solid core. Typically, and no longer surprisingly, the group's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream comes off very well, despite the cast's mix of professionals, amateurs and even kids.
Perhaps the best accomplishment of first-time director (but seasoned performer) Maria Alburtus is giving equal weight and entertainment value to Shakespeare's three layers of characters and plots. At one level, we have the realm of the fairies, specifically King Oberon and Queen Titania, who are feuding over custody of a boy; at Oberon's service is Puck, an expert at creating all sorts of mischief. Oberon is distracted from his personal problems by the second level of action, discord among two sets of young lovers wandering through the woods: Lysander and Hermia, who are trying to avoid Hermia's betrothal to Demetrius, who is loved by Hermia's friend Helena. Oberon sends Puck to help straighten things out, but, of course, Puck's magic spell goes awry.
At the third level, one that initially seems unrelated to the other goings-on, is a group of tradesmen, trying mightily but ineptly to put together a little dramatic performance to present at the wedding of the local duke. Puck comes along and transforms one among them, named Bottom, into a talking ass (not much different from his natural form) with which an enchanted Titania is made to fall in love.
The tradesmen, or "mechanicals," as they're called, are usually little more than crude comic relief interrupting the action, but in the DaVinci Players production, they seem better integrated into the story, and more fully fleshed out as characters—particularly Bottom, played with high humor but minimal mugging by Steve Wood, and Quince, played by the expressive Kristina Miranda Sloan with much more gumption and humor than this figure is usually awarded.
Children number among the lesser fairies, but Oberon is portrayed by a fine professional, Robert Encila (the artistic director of the DaVinci Players). He's a commanding figure with a fine ear for Shakespeare's fluid cadences, and he's well-matched by Lissa Staples' Titania. Sophie Gibson-Rush, fresh out of high school, is properly boisterous, physical and slightly scary as Puck.
Among the mortals, Teresa Vasquez's steady Hermia contrasts nicely with Samantha Cormier's bubbly Helena. Jody Mullen is an impassioned Lysander, while Stephen Greene manages the neat trick of suggesting that Demetrius is a rather boring person without himself turning in a boring performance.
Acting in the lesser roles is up and down, but the performances are strong where it counts most. For example, Ginny Encila makes up for the character Hippolyta's cut lines with revealing facial reactions to the pontificating of her husband-to-be, the duke. On the subject of cuts, they're well-managed, and serve to propel the action without doing a single bit of harm.
Alburtus has transferred the action from Shakespeare's pseudo-Athens to contemporary Manhattan, with the forest scenes playing out in what seems to be Central Park. The shift works well and, most importantly, is handled consistently. The set is simple, but it features a very nicely done tree trunk as its focal point.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is not a profound play, and you don't need an Olivier to put it across. You do need a well-prepared cast and a light spirit, which the DaVinci Players readily provide.