“Honey, I shrunk the Bard” was Citi Performing Arts Center’s message to Boston this year. The annual offering of free Shakespeare on Boston Common was boiled down to just seven performances and last year’s budget almost halved. The good news is that sometimes less is more when imagination rules — or at least shares dominion over A Midsummer Night’s Dream with fairy monarchs Oberon and Titania. There’s no putting a good face on the reduction of performances by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, a “public program” of CPAC. Still, belt tightening was not altogether a bad thing in the bare-Bard-with-balloons staging of Dream that just closed on Boston Common. You can’t move into a balloon, as it seemed you might into the 1950s North End neighborhood setting of last summer’s The Taming of the Shrew. But on its smaller, grassy square of a stage (returned from the Parade Ground to the Parkman Bandstand), with one corner held aloft by a large balloon moon, its Athenian wood a forest of colorful helium spheres bobbing on gossamer strings of trunks, this Dream shimmered. And set designer Beowulf Boritt’s clever motif hung in to the end: in the “Pyramus and Thisby” travesty with which a troupe of proletarians (here Boston Parks Department employees marshaled by a cop) salutes the wedding finale, the Man in the Moon’s dog was a balloon animal and Thisby’s breasts were not silicone implants.
Director Steven Maler has been up to this outdoor-Shakespeare stuff for 11 years now, and he knows what works and what sacrifices are worth it. Given the necessary amplification, the Bard’s most luscious poetry lost its limpidity, and the distance of some of the audience from the action rendered a physically broad staging imperative. But in CSC’s Dream, which was choreographed by Anna Myer, the movement fluctuated between slapstick and the sublime. Antonio Edwards-Suarez’s agile Puck was a yellow satyr sprite with long fingers, hoof-like feet, pink thigh fur, and a body that seemed to ripple in the light. And if he looked slight, he had sufficient strength to hold the substantive fairy king of seasoned Shakespeare vet Johnny Lee Davenport aloft in a sort of bench-press flying angel. Then, when the athletic goblin exited the rear of the stage, he flew into the air and slid — at one point falling backward and head first!
In addition to the feud of the fairy royals (the imposing Davenport and Mimi Bilinski’s sensual if tough Catwoman of a Titania) and the dramatic endeavors of the working class, Shakespeare gives us not so much a love triangle as a love square. Demetrius, once affianced to Helena, has obtained paternal permission to marry Hermia, who loves Lysander. When Hermia and Lysander flee Athens and its rigid patriarchal laws, Demetrius is on their heels with Helena on his. Throwing herself at her spurning love, she beseeches him to “Use me but as your spaniel.” On the Common, this arguably degrading request set the tone for the feisty quartet, who cavorted like a litter of white-clad puppies. Each pursued the adored object of the moment (which changes as Puck plays incompetent Cupid with the juice of a “little western flower”) on knees or all fours. They leapt atop one another and batted perceived rivals from the stage like rubber balls, generally playing “Go fetch” with amore. The fairies, too, got in on the dog act, with Edwards-Suarez’s Puck sniffing more than intuiting human presence.
There was nothing canine about the “rude mechanicals,” however. Garbed in city workers’ jumpsuits and arriving by golf cart, they were 100 percent porcine, tasty ham. Led by Trinity Rep stalwart Fred Sullivan Jr. as an ebulliently grandstanding Bottom in realistic ass’s head and Larry Coen as a no-nonsense-cop-turned-quavering-thespian of a Peter Quince, the troupe also boasted in Paul Melendy a cracked ballet star of a Flute. As Thisby, this screaming meemie had no qualms about piling horror-movie distress atop Bottom’s Edgar Allan Poe–worthy death scene, which capped enthused and protracted hara-kiri with the extraction of an audibly beating heart. Too bad this funny, sinewy, carnival-colored Dream popped its balloon so quickly.
The inner caveman and cavewoman break out of their yuppie carapace with a vengeance in Hunter Gatherers, 33-year-old Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s breakout work, winner of this year’s Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. Currently in an impressive East Coast premiere on Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s handsome new Julie Harris Stage (through September 1), the absurdist comedy first saw light courtesy of a West Coast troupe called Killing My Lobster — which is pretty funny given that its opening scene will seem to New Englanders more grotesque than crustacean killing. As the lights go up on a towering condo loft with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, a lusty amateur cook prepares to slaughter a bleating lamb in a cardboard box, the container jumping around with the soon-to-be-dinner’s panic. As the evening progresses, its affluent Gen-X anniversary party devolving into Darwinian chaos, Donald Margulies’s Dinner with Friends gives way to Edward Albee’s The Goat. Of course, the appetizer of ritual sacrifice should tip us off that we’re not headed into The Importance of Being Earnest.