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Colleen Lafeber, Dustin Babin, Nolan Fitzgerald Hennelly and Amber Lageman.

Image: Frank Atura 

Shakespeare’s comedy of confused lovers, theatrical working men, fairies, kings and queens, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has been seen locally before, but possibly never in such a perfect setting as Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, as it is in the current FSU/Asolo Conservatory production.

The gardens at night, warmly lit, with a light breeze drifting through the trees and the occasional bird soaring overhead, places us squarely in the wooded setting where the action of the play takes place. And there’s no doubt the gardens help to weave the magic spell that Shakespeare’s classic casts.

The entire second-year class of the Conservatory participates here (along with a few first-year students as fairies), and, as they say, “there are no small roles.” Meaning, each cast member gets the chance to shine at least a bit, under the ingenious direction of Jonathan Epstein.

A brief recap of the situation: Hermia (Amber Lageman) loves Lysander (Nolan Fitzgerald Hennelly). Demetrius (Dustin Babin), who used to love Helena (Colleen Lefeber), also loves Hermia, but she won’t have him. For various reasons the lovers end up in the woods outside Athens, where the fairies, led by Oberon (Anthony J. Hamilton) and Titania (Mary Ellen Everett), hold sway. That’s also where some “rude mechanicals” are preparing their production of Pyramus and Thisbe in honor of the upcoming nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta (also played by Hamilton and Everett).

That’s the setup, and it’s a lot of fun to see where Epstein goes with it. While staying true to Shakespeare’s words, he and the cast (especially Andrew Bosworth as the naughty Puck) occasionally throw in an aside of a more contemporary nature; that approach is matched by Becki Leigh’s costumes (including over the knee socks for Hermia and Helena that make them look like schoolgirls but also protect their legs as they and other cast members frequently end up on the ground) and some of the music to which the characters occasionally dance.

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Lawrence James, Mary Ellen Everett, Kedren Spencer and Amy Helms.

Image: Frank Atura 

In fact, the action is never ceasing here, with Epstein and the players keeping up an impressively high level of energy and zest as they dash around the stage (set up overlooking Sarasota Bay) and beyond—through the audience, to a peninsula in the water, where fairies often flit, in general making the gardens their playspace. The physical comedy here is demanding and doubtless very well-rehearsed, but it feels spontaneous and appropriate.

The lovers and the fairies have their own specific interpretations here, but where Epstein may be the most creative is with his Pyramus and Thisbe cast. Kedren Spencer is “Nikki Bottom,” enthusiastically longing to play every role in the show and braying with zest when transformed into the ass that becomes Titania’s love interest; Aleksandr Krapivkin is a vodka-swilling Russian director leading the cast; Wes Tolman a slightly effeminate tailor holding on to his stuffed dog; and Christopher Carlson and Amy Helms working class guys in uniform or overalls (complete with tools) as Robin Snout Starveling and Snug. The possibilities for laughs widen with the directorial choices.

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Andrew Bosworth as Puck.

Image: Frank Atura 

Full credit, too, to Lageman, Lafeber, Hennelly and Babin as the lovers, who throw themselves around with abandon as bewilderment mounts as to who’s in love with who. And Bosworth as Puck is a comic treat and the snarky voice all this love nonsense sometimes needs.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues through April 29; performances appear to be pretty much sold out, but you can try for tickets at 351-8000 or asolorep.org.

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