Sara Topham, left, and Tim Campbell, right, as fairies Titania and Oberon.
William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a tricky play to impose a concept on, because it consists of distinct stories taking place in three overlapping worlds.
The first is the court of Athens, where two sets of lovers fight their own and one another’s desires. In the second, lower-class tradesmen prepare to perform a play for the court. The third is supernatural: the fairies of the forest, who toy with human emotions for fun and revenge.
“We needed a setting that would serve each of those three worlds,” says Jennifer Moeller, who designed costumes for the Shakespeare Theatre’s new production of “Midsummer.”
They found it: The play is set in an abandoned theater that’s being fixed up so the courtiers can watch the players’ shenanigans — and when the theater is deserted, ghostly sprites come out to play.
“We wanted to seem like the magic of the theater was coming alive,” Moeller says.
The production doesn’t go for theatrical illusion — trying to make it look as if fairies are really flying, for example. The sandbags and ropes and harnesses that usually stay behind the scenes are onstage from the start. The audience can see everything and is left to wonder how and when items will be used.
This setup helped Moeller solve the design problem of the donkey’s head that the clownish actor Bottom is cursed with for much of the play. Full masks are tough for actors because they hide facial expressions.
“We’re playing with the idea that the donkey head is a leftover prop that’s been sitting in the theater for a hundred years,” she says. “It’s rotting away in places. So you don’t lose his face entirely.”
The concept also gave Moeller the freedom to play with costumes from multiple historical eras, though the play is set in the late 1940s.
“The fairies emerge wearing ghostly pale undergarments from various periods,” she says. “And then they play this elaborate game of dress up.”
The fairies are ghostly, yes, but not ghosts, so Moeller was careful to shy away from Halloween-esque tropes.
“I don’t know that we actually try to make them look like ghosts,” she says. “The minute you start talking about fantasy and fairies, it’s easy to go crazy, but I tried to root it in some sort of reality.”
Double Casting: This production of “Midsummer” blurs the line between fantasy and reality even more by casting Sara Topham and Tim Campbell not only as fairy royalty Titania and Oberon, respectively, but as Athenian royalty as well. Campbell sheds his ethereal regalia for medals as Theseus, king of Athens, and Topham plays his fiancee, the Amazon queen Hippolyta.
Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW; through Dec. 30, $43-$105; 202-547-1122. (Gallery Place)