“Shakespeare with puppets” may sound like a kiddie gimmick, but the Bristol Old Vic's A Midsummer Night's Dream, now at the Broad Stage, should not be so easily dismissed.
The mortal characters are purely human, while the fairy characters are portrayed using masks and puppets created by South Africa – based Handspring Puppet Company. They're not as elaborate as Handspring's famous wooden steeds for War Horse, but they have a primitive, handmade charm. In the workshoplike set, one performer hammers out the finishing touches on a mask early in the play. The costumes include plenty of heavy plaid shirts, dark boots and suspenders.
Still, the production, by War Horse director Tom Morris, is surprisingly uninvolving. The main quartet of lovers and their foibles feel too separate from the puppet business, a big reason that the puppets' theatricality doesn't translate into emotional heft.
And while Puck is lovingly rendered as a metal, medieval version of Wall-E, the visual details are hard to see in the dark lighting and the vast Broad Stage. Since he's voiced by his multiple puppeteers, the character's humor also gets lost.
Oddly, the heart of the production is Bottom, the actor who's rehearsing the play within the play but gets caught up in the love spells. Miltos Yerolemou's masterful portrayal is both funny and sympathetic.
Bristol Old Vic in association with Handspring Puppet Company at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica; through April 19. (310) 434-3200, thebroadstage.com.