November and December seem, at first, an odd time to stage A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's not just the play's title that contributes to its air of endless summer: Shakespeare stocked his feverishly fanciful comedy with young lovers blind to anything but their own passions and trickster fairies with flowers sprouting from their scalps. But Midsummer is also the Bard's most fantastical play and one of his most accessible, and by that measure it fits with the season's tendency for escapist holiday entertainment—not to mention our personal pursuits of extravagance and overindulgence at this time of year. Portland Center Stage's entertaining production is a welcome addition to the holiday calendar: Jovially directed by Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Penny Metropulos, it plays up Midsummer's mischief without sacrificing warmth.
I've seen another Midsummer directed by Metropulos, and with its sapphire-hued set and bed dangling from the rafters, that production amped up the play's lush dreaminess. This version, abetted by Michael Vaughn Sims' mercifully understated set—three gangly trees that meld into the stage's steps—is playful but more grounded. In its first exchange, a pomaded Theseus informs Hermia of her fate—marry the dull Demetrius or clear off to the nunnery—with all the gleeful sliminess of a reality television host sending a contestant into a radioactive swamp. As Hermia, Kayla Lian responds to this unjust choice with a mix of confusion and annoyance, but oddly little despair. When she and beau Lysander (an appealing Ty Boice) decide to run away together, they seem fueled more by practicality than passion.
But the entrance of Helena (the dynamic Jenni Putney), who loves Demetrius even as he spurns her, injects the proceedings with a boozy shot of life. When the quartet of lovers ends up in the forest and a magical mishap causes Lysander to fall for Helena, Putney responds not with a hissy fit but with justifiable exasperation. Putney portrays Helena's understanding of her predicament—rejected by Demetrius and then harassed by a lovesick Lysander—with intelligence, verve and convincing emotion, and she punctuates her fieriest lines with nuance rather than blunt force. The staging is physically spirited and effective: After Demetrius also falls in love with Helena, he and Lysander bounce about the stage like amateur wrestlers. Poor Hermia, now scorned by both men, gets tipped upside down, swung by her ankles and then carted off like a lump of trash.
The parallel plotlines unfold enjoyably, if a bit comfortably. Clad in denim overalls and affecting a down-home Southern accent, James Newcomb is predictably goofy as Nick Bottom, the likable and immodest performer whose head is transformed into a donkey's. The play-within-a-play, performed by an amateur Athenian troupe, grants scene-stealing turns to Andy Lee-Hillstrom in drag and Tim True as a pantomiming lion. PCS mostly avoids Midsummer's overblown traps—though the costumes, which range from Hermia's '50s-style yellow capris to Oberon's plumage of wheat, are distractingly disjointed—and turns in a production that is both loyal and lively. It's no new wheel, but Metropulos and her talented cast provide the old one with plenty of grease.
SEE IT: A Midsummer Night's Dream is at Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 pm Sundays. Noon select Thursdays, 2 pm select Sundays. Through Dec. 23. $30-$70.