Give the manpower and money, and James Noone will design the perfect set: For A Midsummer Night's Dream, now playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, the stage's back wall boasts ornate patterns and imperial doors. The middle section swivels on a revolving floor, and the upper wall breaks apart, so that a glistening moon can drift across the scrim. At times, the elf Puck bursts through a trap-door and cackles, while a monsoon of green leaves cascades from above.
Such a breathtaking set requires lavish costumes, and Gabriel Berry serves us elegant gowns, silk pantaloons, Georgian uniforms and so many buckled shoes. Even Hermia's carpet-bags are sumptuous enough to shoplift.
Given all this glamorous spectacle, the actors could recite a Wikipedia entry about Shakespeare's favorite puppy and nobody would tell the difference. After all, A Midsummer Night's Dream isn't really about anything: It's just a cute romantic comedy about Greek lovers lost in the forest, and the goofy gods who meddle with them. Yes, there are love potions and faerie dances, polite sex jokes and hilarious insults. The horrid actor Nick Bottom transforms into a mule and scores a date with Titania, Queen of the Faeries, but the chaste bestiality of Midsummer amounts to only harmless fun. Even for a Shakespearean comedy, Midsummer is practically plot-free.
Enter Ted Pappas, the Public's artistic director. Pappas has directed scads of Shakespeare comedies, and he's honed a distinctive style: big faces, much slapstick and no gag too silly. Just as Demetrius is put under Oberon's spell, Pappas is touched by the spirit of vaudeville, and every slap, double-take and pratfall looks brand new among the cast's comic geniuses.
It is clear that Pappas will do anything to make us laugh at these 400-year-old witticisms, even if every metaphor must be pantomimed and every stage direction amplified a hundredfold. Maybe this is what it takes to reach a Shakespeare-deprived world; either way, it's achingly funny. If wedgie-picking wins over a Sunday matinee -- and oh, how it does! -- then, by thunder, wedgies will be picked.
In a troupe full of scene-stealers, the biggest bandit is John Ahlin, who plays the actor-donkey Nick Bottom. Tall and puffily bearded, Ahlin is the definitive gentle giant. Long before the finale, Ahlin uses every farcical trick there is. Then, in the final minutes, Ahlin unleashes a death scene so long, so colossally absurd, that Shakespeare himself should be alive to see it. Though every actor deserves a standing ovation -- as well as Pappas, Berry and Noone -- it's no wonder that Ahlin bows last.
A Midsummer Night's Dream continues through Feb. 21. O'Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave, Downtown. 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org