REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Dream in High Park

Aaron Willis as Bottom and 郝邦宇 Steven Hao as Puck in Dream in High Park's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Willis strums a guitar enthusiastically, his face hidden behind a donkey mask with glowing eyes. Hao crouches behind a plastic yellow bin, watching Willis with open-mouthed awe. The stage behind them is brightly lit with purple and red, emphasising a stained-glass-like set of doors at the back of the stage. Original photo by Dahlia Katz.
Aaron Willis as Bottom and 郝邦宇 Steven Hao as Puck in Dream in High Park’s 40th Anniversary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Original photo by Dahlia Katz.

There are certain expectations when seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at an outdoor theatre.

  1. Bright colours
  2. Campy, over-the-top comedy
  3. Mosquitos

Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park certainly delivers on the first two, and amazingly, I remained blissfully mosquito-bite free despite a lack of bug spray. Their 40th anniversary production of  Shakespeare’s most-produced comedy is a delight from start to finish, and makes for a lovely evening in High Park.

It’s a familiar tale: unhappy in their pairings, four young lovers flee into the woods to escape their impending marriages, only to be whisked into a fairy-filled misadventure that throws their relationships further into turmoil. But being one of Shakespeare’s comedies, there’s a number of delightfully absurd subplots that ultimately lead to a happy ending.

Director Jamie Robinson has done a wonderful job paring the script down from its original three hours: on opening night, the play ran just over 90 minutes without an intermission. Despite the massive cuts, he’s artfully maintained the key plot elements that give the story its shape while leaving plenty of space for fun and frivolity.

Set and costume designer Jackie Chau has transformed the High Park Amphitheatre stage into a rainbow-hued dream alongside lighting designer Logan Raju Cracknell. Bags of garbage litter the vibrant stage, emphasizing Robinson’s choice to lean into the environmental themes in the original text, and Chau has incorporated pieces of trash into the characters’ costumes, from a caution-tape lion’s mane to what looks like a shower-curtain cape. The contrast between the organic, swirling, and almost-stained-glass-like colours of the forest and the bright but dirty plastic bins and bags makes the point without being a distraction from the striking world they’ve created. 

Richard Feren’s sound design and composition is both whimsical and familiar, featuring creative adaptations of a number of classic songs — the adapted “We Will Rock You” had the entire audience clapping along. There were few mic issues on opening night, but for the most part, the sound seemed to carry clearly to the bookable, accessible lawn chairs at the top of the amphitheatre. There were a few scenes, however, in which the performers’ volume began to compete with the mic, creating an almost echoing effect that was noticeable from my seat immediately in front of the stage.

It’s always a joy to see a play where you can tell the cast is having a blast, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems like… well, a dream to perform in. Each of the actors makes their character(s) their own, leaning into the physical comedy of the piece with uproarious results. I cannot stress this enough: this show is funny, and you can tell the actors know it. It’s not to say that they’re sacrificing the story to get a laugh, but not a single performer holds back in their over-the-top physicality (courtesy of Robinson, movement director Monica Dottor, and fight director Anita Nittoly). 

Louisa Zhu and Shelly Anthony make for an elegant Hippolyta and Theseus, with the actors pulling the traditional double-duty as the fairy queen and king, Titania and Oberon. The four young lovers, played by Megan Legesse (Helena), Jadyn Nasato (Hermia), Frank Chung (Demetrius), and Stuart Hefford (Lysander) deliver laugh-out-loud performances as they frolic, fight, and fall asleep throughout the forest. 郝邦宇 Steven Hao’s Puck is adorably oblivious as he guides the audience through the woods, making mistake after mistake in his mischievous mission. 

But the stars of the show are the mechanicals, played by Ryan G. Hinds (Peter Quince), Angel Lo (Starvling), Julie Tepperman (Snug), Vincent LeBlanc-Beaudoin (Flute), and Aaron Willis (Bottom). Their scenes appear to be the most heavily re-written, with plenty of audience interaction and what seems to be ad-libbing: it’s goofy, charming, and very funny. The entire team seems to have taken Puck’s words to heart, because Lord: what fools these mechanicals be!

That foolishness is what makes this particular production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream such a standout. Despite the heat, the entire opening night audience of 800 was howling with laughter in each of the mechanicals’ scenes. Their presentation Pyramus and Thisbe in particular was a showstopper. I was disappointed when Hippolyta declined an epilogue to the meta-production, as per the original text: the play-within-a-play was an undeniable highlight in an already funny production. Had Shakespeare seen Robinson’s production, he may have changed his mind.

We might be experiencing the hottest summer in Toronto’s history, but don’t let that keep you away. August is thankfully supposed to get cooler and damper, so grab your sunscreen, your bug-spray (or flyswatter), and your friends and family and hasten to the High Park Amphitheatre, cheek by jowl: this one’s not to be missed.

Canadian Stage’s 40th anniversary celebration of Dream in High Park runs until September 3, 2023. Tickets for A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be purchased here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

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Written By

Jessica is a former associate editor at Intermission, as well as a writer, classically-trained actor, and plant enthusiast. Since graduating from LAMDA in the UK with her MA in acting, you can often find her writing screenplays and short plays in the park, writing extensive lists of plant care tips, or working on stage and screen (though she uses a stage name). Jessica freelances with various companies across Canada, but her passion lies in working with theatre artists and enthusiasts.