Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2007
SNOUT: Doth the moon shine that night we play our play?
BOTTOM: A calendar, a calendar! look in the almanac; find out moonshine, find out moonshine.
– William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, scene i
The afternoon before I set off to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream I chanced to read an essay by Roy Barrette entitled Moonshine. He spoke of how electricity had diminished the role of moonlight in our lives. “Jane Austen (1775-1814) enthusiasts will recall her references to visiting around on moonlit nights, the only nights when dinner parties and balls were planned.” he wrote. I thought of occasions I have had to be out of doors in the country on moonlit, and moonless nights, most notably a pitch black night when, in order to stay on the paved roadway and not wander helplessly into the forest, I had to get down on hands and knees and crawl in order to feel the ground beneath me.
One of the great questions surrounding this particular Shakespeare & Company mounting of Midsummer – their seventh in their 30th year history – was how it would play indoors. I am grateful to my colleague J. Peter Bergman who reminded me a few days ago, when I set up a great lament that the production would be presented inside, that that is where theatre belongs.
Still, at intermission I met a friend and we reminisced about the glories of the 2001 outdoor production at The Mount. And she said, “Did you see it under a full moon?” I couldn’t answer that, which probably means that I didn’t because I have distinct memories of moonlight at The Mount and none of them involve Puck and the wandering Athenian lovers. But I pointed out to her that in this production it would always be a full moon, because the moon was artificial rather than real. There would be no Jane Austen-style delay to our satisfaction because the moon would offer the same golden glow night after night after night. There would also be no canceled shows and loss of income due to rain, nor would patrons risk mosquito bites and Lyme Disease at every performance.
"There are subtleties that can't be revealed to a large, outdoor audience. It is enchanting to have a real forest as a backdrop, but one can end up competing with it and expressing the play in broad stokes. I look forward to focusing on the subtleties and simple nuances of this play in what I believe is such a wonderful and intimate space." – Eleanor Holdridge
In actuality, Shakespeare clearly sets A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the time of the new moon, not the full, but director Eleanor Holdridge has set her production in Jane Austen’s time, and one can’t have Hermia, Demetrius, Helena, and Lysander crawling about on a dark stage feeling their way to true love. And so a huge, round, golden, gauzy orb hovers low over the horizon, silhouetting the stark, leafless forest trees on the back wall of the Founders’ Theatre.
I have become accustomed to modern, raunchy interpretations of Midsummer. It is so oft performed that I have come to imagine I know where the jokes are and how they should be played. Here Holdridge not only sets the action in the Romantic Period, but plays up the romantic rather than the sexual imagery and energy of the piece.
“...Sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wild reality,
And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts...”
- From The Dream by George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)
I am searching for a way to express the look and the feel of this production, because in actuality it is just another production of a play that even high school students feel they have seen and heard too often. The words, the plot, and the characters are going to be the same. You know what is going to happen and how it is going to turn out. In order to explain why this one is worth seeing requires me to convey what makes it unique, and what makes this one unique is the amazing sense Holdridge and her design team – Kris Stone, sets; Les Dickert, lights; and Jessica Ford, costumes – have created of the era in which they have chosen to set it. I felt as if I had been transported not just into a dreamscape, but into an early 19th century dreamscape. My memories of what I saw morph almost instantly into paintings and those funny little paper silhouettes that were so very popular then.
The cast features quite a few Shakespeare & Company newcomers and the overall feel is that the cast is very young, although there are some venerable actors among the Mechanicals. The “big name” in the cast is Nigel Gore, who here hee-haws around as Nick Bottom, and who will soon play Antony to Tina Packer’s Cleopatra. But as one has come to expect from Shakespeare & Company, the entire cast is uniformly excellent. A glance through their biographies revealed experienced men and women trained at top schools like Juilliard, Yale School of Drama, and Carnegie-Mellon, to name a few.
Holdridge has cast Michael Solomon as Oberon and Theseus, and Molly Wright Stuart as Titania and Hippolyta, so where Shakespeare has four couples of lovers, it is only possible for three of them to appear on stage at once here. Also, Solomon and Stuart are just as young and robust as the four young actors cast as the Athenian lovers – Julie Webster (Hermia), Craig Baldwin (Demetrius), Justin Gibbs (Lysander), and Christianna Nelson (Helena) – so you do not get the representation of love in different generations that one is used to.
Kevin Rich’s Puck is costumed as a Greek Satyr, minus the cloven hooves for feet, and cavorts like one, taking a quick moment to copulate cheerfully with just about anyone of any species that crosses his path. Puck is such an ancient figure in humankind’s mythology, and this interpretation is more steeped in the miraculous magic of nature than the hocus-pocus magic of the carnival. I loved how one minute Rich was dashing about wiggling his furry codpiece at the world and the next he was playing an innkeeper or Philostrate. As if Puck lurks in the everyday world along with the realm of dreams and fairies.
The fairyland/dreamland Holdridge and company create on the almost bare Founders’ Theatre stage is all fluffy pillows and gauzy sheets. One big bed in which the world slumbers and dreams. I found the use of the numerous trapdoors in the floor of the stage to be ingenious and to avoid the “whack-a-mole” feeling that earlier productions have evoked with heads popping out of the floor with alarming regularity. Four long hanging gauze drapes form the forest, and at one point I was seeing the action right through one of them. I could have moved, leaned politely on the shoulder of my seatmates to the left or right for an unobstructed view, but I could see well enough to know what was happening (Titania and Bottom were being tucked up into her white milkweed pod bed) and it seemed right to be seeing it through a slight haze.
BOTTOM: “I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream.” – William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV, scene i
The Mechanicals – Gore, Robert Biggs (Peter Quince), Tony Molina (Tom Snout), Adam Gauger (Robin Starveling) and Ryan Winkles (Francis Flute) – are over the top hilarious, as they must be to get us to sit still for their “Pyramus and Thisbe” which is the only thing that keeps us from going home to our own slumbers at 10:30 pm. It is impossible for me to pick a favorite. I loved Molina’s stuttering Snout (gee, who else has a snout and stutters like that?) who fines his rich and smooth baritone when encased in “lime and hair” as the Wall. Gauger did the first comedy routine I have ever seen en pointe, clutching lantern moon, thornbush, and stuffed dog. And I adored Winkles gentle shrieking Flute and his sudden metamorphosis into a tragic actor of great depth at Thisbe’s suicide, which was frankly the only way to top Gore’s endless gory deaths as Pyramus, a suicide routine that included knocking balls out of the park and having an audience member remove the sword from his skull.
But with the exception of those last minutes during the Mechanicals’ play, this is not a laugh-a-minute Midsummer. It is instead a romantic and magical one.
“For the Romantics, the dream (with all its terror, joy, ecstacy, and passion) held answers to unlocking the imagination and self-knowledge.” – Eleanor Holdridge, Director’s Notes
Peter is right, theatre does belong indoors. I did not miss the real forest and the real moon because this is not a play about reality.
As always, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a good way to introduce children to the joys of Shakespeare. With its multiple plot lines and myriad of diverse characters it holds the attention of the Nintendo generation while exposing them to the rich language of the Bard. The little boy seated next to me watched the show lying across his mother’s lap, but he enjoyed it, and your children will too.
The Shakespeare and Company production of A Midsummer Night's Dream runs in repertory through September 1 in the Founders' Theatre, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs two hours and fifty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 8 and up. Call 413-637-3353 for tickets and information
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007