Producing good Shakespeare is a challenge in its own right — let alone when the company consists of only five people.
The Actors from the London Stage, or AFTLS for short, is a five-person professional Shakespeare troupe from London, England. They perform full Shakespeare plays with the parts divided among the five actors, who also serve as co-directors. Notre Dame acts as their “home base” in the United States, and this semester, they’re performing a short sold-out run of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (DPAC).
Since the troupe’s partnership with the University, AFTLS has traditionally performed at the Washington Hall Mainstage. “Midsummer” marks the first time that the company has performed at DPAC, and the new space suits them well. The full house felt fuller with the expert way that the actors both used the stage and interacted with the audience, at one point going so far as to make an entire bit out of asking a front-row audience member for their phone. I was seated up in the back row of the balcony, but at no point did I feel far from the action.
The nature of AFTLS lends itself extraordinarily well to comedies. The difficulty of the format tends to take the wind out of the sails of more dramatic scenes, occasionally creating interesting character parallels, but it otherwise feels too cramped to do tragedy much justice. “Midsummer” is free from these faults; the production was at its best when the actors leaned hard into the campy, absurdist nature of the text.
For most of the show, it’s easy to forget that there are only five actors on stage — until a scene comes along that contains six characters or more. The production has two options: They can try to draw attention away from the in-between moments where an actor has to switch from one character to another, or they can make those moments part of the joke. “Midsummer” mostly chose the latter, and the effect was hilarious. Actor Sam Hill, in particular, played this beautifully, switching between the old, hobbling Egeus and the young, self-confident Demetrius with such impeccable timing that those moments became a running gag in and of themselves.
That being said, not all of “Midsummer” is built for laughs. The company handled the show’s darker themes with deft expertise. Lucy Reynolds gave a moving performance as Helena, especially in her delivery of the “Lo, she is one of this confederacy!” monologue, but her standout performance was as the chillingly subdued Hippolyta. Likewise, Michael Wagg played both a phenomenally witty Puck and a brilliantly assertive Theseus. Anna Crichlow’s wide-eyed Hermia contrasted gorgeously with her performance as Oberon, as did Natasha Bain’s captivating Titania with the meek Snug. I have to again shout out Sam Hill, who played the best Nick Bottom I’ve ever seen. The entire “play within a play” sequence was a fantastic ending to the show; I’ve been laughing about “Never was there a story of more woe / Than this of Thisbe and her Pyramo” for a full day.
The Actors from the London Stage production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” triumphs at what it sets out to do, working within its own form limitations instead of against them to create a production that is haunting and hilarious in equal measure. The actors excel at every component of the performance: the physical comedy, the live music and sound effects, the audience interaction and the beautifully delivered text. The barebones set and minimal lighting allow the performances of the actors themselves to shine. It’s easy to get lost in the world of the show despite the non-traditional nature of AFTLS.