Shakespeare at Spoleto: A ‘Dream’ of a production

If you’re enraptured by the tour of “War Horse” that has come to Belk Theater, Fate has been kind: Through June 9, you can get an equally intense blast of comedy from the same sources at Spoleto Festival U.S.A.

Director Tom Morris and Handspring Puppet Theatre, who both won Tony Awards for that show, have re-teamed for a bawdy, brilliantly conceived interpretation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

I have seen at least a dozen “Dreams” on stage or screen, and I’ve never come away with a deeper understanding of it.

This production lets us appreciate all of Shakespeare’s humor, social conscience and magical ability to juggle action in three worlds: Among the nobles of the Athenian court ruled by Duke Theseus, in the forest with the “rude mechanicals” (craftsmen haplessly preparing a show for the Duke’s wedding), and in the realm of powerful, sometimes malevolent spirits who compel us to do what pleases them.

The show’s creators use simple means: broken planks to represent woods outside the city, or a bodiless head lifted by an actress to present Titania, Queen of the Fairies. As Shakespeare did at The Globe, they tickle our imaginations and ask us to do some of the labor.

The show begins in a puppet workshop, with a woman planing and polishing figures. The message seems clear: We’re about to enter a world where, to some extent, most inhabitants are controlled by outside forces. (The men in power are not: Theseus runs Athens, and Oberon controls the fairy world. That’s why he’s depicted by a head and a huge hand, the symbol of his power.)

The brutally sexist nature of this society emerges at once. Theseus conquered Hippolyta in battle and now owns her. Daughters must marry the man their father chooses, become nuns or be put to death.

The fairies are capricious, frightening and often malevolent; they don’t “kill us for their sport,” as Gloucester says of the gods in “King Lear,” but they get cruel entertainment by jerking us around. For once, they’re never realistic: Titania’s servants are hideous puppets, and Puck is embodied by multiple actors making inanimate objects (a basket, an oil can, a saw) form and reform in the shape of different “bodies.”

Four people play the young lovers, and the other eight actors take on 20 roles. Miltos Yerolemou cuts loose in the largest role of Bottom – a very Greek sort of Bottom, but these people do live in Athens – and Akiya Henry and Naomi Cranston stand out as feisty Hermia and the put-upon Helena, who for once isn’t a whiny irritant.

Where do the puppets come in? The lovers tote dolls, which I took to be representations of their souls. The fine actors playing Theseus and Hippolyta (David Ricardo Pearce and Saskia Portway) hold up Oberon and Titania’s heads and, in a beautiful finale, don giant full-body suits and stride away.

As for Bottom…well, there’s no dignified way to put this. Be warned, if taking a child, that this production fully explores Shakespeare’s puns about nuts, stones, hair, cheeks, etc.

So when Bottom gets transformed into an ass and bewitches drugged Titania, Yerolemou doesn’t just don a furry head. He stretches full-length atop a life-sized, wood-and-metal donkey frame, facing the tail and using his hands to propel the legs by turning pedals.

So his bent legs confront us, with swim flippers on the ends to convey ears and plastic eyes attached to his calves. His pants are yanked down, so the top of the beast’s skull – which Titania fondles and smooches – consists of his vast rosy butt, available for all of us to see.

Audacious? Unforgettable? Insightful in the way it rams home the meaning? You bet. This “Midsummer” reminds us exactly why Spoleto exists.