The Nov. 11 and 12 performances of William Shakespeare’s comic masterpiece A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed by the University of Notre Dame-based Actors from the London Stage and presented as part of Duke Performances’ gala 2004-05 season, was really something wonderful. Five veteran actors from across the pond divided all the roles and staged a sublime production of this rollicking romantic comedy on a bare stage in simple costumes, with just five wooden cubes for scenery/seats and a few carefully selected novelty items, such as bug-eyes on springy stalks for fairies and ass’ ears for Bottom, to heighten the hilarity.

First produced in 1595-96 and first printed in 1600 in a quarto edition based on a fair copy by the author, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set on the streets of the ancient Athens and in the enchanted forest that surrounds the city — a forest where magic is truly in the air.

Thin and wiry Guy Burgess gave a regal performance as the mythical Greek hero Theseus, Duke of Athens; and tall and lean Jan Shepherd was a delight as Theseus’ towering Amazon warrior-queen Hippolyta, conquered in battle but later smitten by Cupid’s arrow. Hippolyta is shocked when her male-chauvinist husband-to-be threatens rough justice to erstwhile lovers Hermia (Caroline Devlin) and Demetrius (Nicholas Tigg) if they defy the arbitrary decision by her autocratic father Egeus (Nick Tigg) to betroth his lovely headstrong daughter to the handsome but fickle Lysander (Christopher Staines).

Just watching Jan Shepherd, as Hippolyta, react in a slow burn to Theseus’ boorish behavior is worth the price of admission. She also tickled the audience’s funnybone with her comical antics as gawky Helena, Lysander’s seduced and abandoned former girlfriend; as two mischievous fairies; and as the carpenter Peter Quince, organizer and director of the amateur theatrical troupe of rustic artisans who performed The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe as part of the entertainment when Theseus and Hippolyta celebrated their marriage.

Thoroughly hissable as licentious Lysander, Christopher Staines is charming as the quarrelsome fairy king Oberon, whimsical as the fairy Cobweb, and an absolute scream as Francis Flute the Bellows-Mender, who reluctantly dons drag and affects a falsetto to impersonate Thisbe in the play-within-the-play.

Caroline Devlin delivers praiseworthy performances as the rebellious Hermia, condemned to a lifetime of misery if Egeus’ edict stands; the pompous master of revels Philostrate; feisty Titania, the beautiful but stubborn queen of the fairies; and the tailor Robin Starveling, who played Thisbe’s mother, and Snug the Joiner, whose partially stifled roars and highly amusing antics as the Lion in the artisans’ play are among the evening’s many, many comic high points.

Nick Tigg is terrific as the lovelorn swain Demetrius, who convinces Hermia to defy the duke and flee Athens with him; as the domestic tyrant Egeus; and, most especially, as Nick Bottom the Weaver, the hysterically funny ham actor who wants to play all the major roles in Pyramus and Thisbe, so he can monopolize the spotlight and outshine all the other players. Last Friday night, when Oberon’s servant Puck (Guy Burgess) transformed Bottom into an ass, complete with donkey’s ears, bray, and (it is hinted) amatory equipment, Tigg had the Duke Performances patrons laughing so hard that tears ran down many cheeks.

But it was Burgess who stole the show with his absolutely inspired performance as Puck a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow, jester to the fairy court and a wide-eyed, grinning, pixilated sprite who merrily scampered about the Reynolds Industries Theater stage and, in momentary repose, impishly rested his head on Oberon’s shoulder. Guy Burgess also provoked bellylaughs with his impersonation of the fairies Peaseblossom and Moth. While playing Tom Snout the Tinker, who plays Pyramus’ father, Burgess nearly brought the house down with his stiff Frankenstein-like walk and jerky slow-motion thrust of his fingers in a horizontal V-for-victory sign to suggest a chink in the Wall that separated the star-crossed lovers. All in all, Burgess’ shenanigans provided the icing for an incomparable multilayered comic cake.

Duke Performances: Actors from the London Stage: University of Virginia (Shakespeare Resources): University of Virginia (1623 First Folio Text, edited by John Heminges and Henry Condell):
University of Virginia (1866 Globe Edition Text, edited by William George Clark and William Aldis Wright):