A Midsummer Night¹s Dream is one of Shakespeare's most successful plays, weaving together not only several plot strands, but disparate worlds: human and fairy, courtier and tradesman, Hellenic and Elizabethan. It's magical, funny, good-humored with only the smallest trace of melancholy, and filled with sublime poetry. But it also appears to be one of the hardest of the comedies to pull off. How do you deal with the fairies? Do you emphasize Victorian prettiness or contemporary grotesquerie? Cast children, dancers or regular actors? The '30s film -- lacking the technical wizardry available now -- attempted all kinds of magical effects, some delightful and others remarkably silly. (Was there ever a more irritating Puck than Mickey Rooney?) The witches in Macbeth pose a similar problem, solved in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production through the use of drums and African dance. Director Patrick Kelly is less successful in dealing with the fairy world of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
As its title suggests, the play is a hallucinatory look at love. It begins with an imminent royal wedding, that of Theseus and his captured Amazon bride, Hippolyta. A father enters to beg for Theseus's judgment against his rebellious daughter Hermia, who has rejected Demetrius, the suitor he chose for her, in favor of another man, Lysander. In Romeo and Juliet, this is the stuff of tragedy, but here it's just the beginning of a sequence of mistakes and misidentifications that show just how interchangeable the lovers are. Tragedy does strut the stage later, but only in the form of parody, when a group of tradesmen act out -- with earnest and hilarious accuracy -- the sorrowful love-deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe. Lysander, rejected by Hermia, is loved by Helena--whom he, of course, rejects. Eventually, the four lovers wander off into the woods.
They enter the kingdom of Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, whose shared love, though often vengeful and bickering, is transformed into something glorious by the sheer power of Shakespeare's language. Soon, Oberon is both getting revenge on Titania and dispatching his servant, Puck, to solve the wandering lovers' problems with magical juices that make things even more muddled than they were before.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, University of Colorado campus, Boulder
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in conjunction with Macbeth, Richard III and Shakespeare in Briefs
Through August 18
Then comes the strangest coupling of all, that of beautiful Titania with Bottom the Weaver, who's been fitted by Puck with the head of an ass. "Be kind and courteous to this gentleman," she tells her attendants. "Hop in his walks, and gambol in his eyes/ Feed him with apricots and dewberries/ With purple grapes, green figs and mulberries..." The image of the ethereal Titania with this grotesque half-beast encapsulates the primary theme of the play, which is the irrational blindness of love.
For me, the CSF production didn't work. In fact, it had me in a kind of fury of irritation and impatience, longing for the evening to be over. I was clearly in the minority, however. Everyone around me was laughing, and my very literate and insightful companion said afterward that she was delighted with the production. So what was my problem?
I think, first and foremost, it had to do with speech. Almost no one in the cast spoke Shakespeare very well, and in a play as full of melody as this, that's a real problem. There was some of that exaggerated Shakespearean-speak when actors can't say the word "howl" without making a mini-howl of it. There were a lot of voices that didn't carry well or squeaked or cracked in the higher registers.
Not only were the fairies not dancers (or even particularly graceful actors), but Oberon and Titania were smothered in layer upon layer of clothing. Designer Mary C. McClung's costumes had their charms -- I liked the purples and honey-golds of Titania's garments and the blue-greens of Oberon's -- but they seemed designed for people who were sitting still. Moving, the actors sometimes looked like little sofas, which proved a real problem when Oberon was sneaking around the stage spying on the lovers. I think Ceeko Scheeren may have been quite a good Oberon, but his costume was so distracting that I couldn't tell. Sarah Lauren Fallon, as Titania, had the most pleasant and most expressive female voice I heard all night, though it seemed to be emanating from a pile of cushions. As for the rest of the fairies -- were those curly strips protruding from their faces meant to be noses or proboscises?
Theseus (Alex Robertson) and Hippolyta (Jennifer Zuko Boughn) don't have much to do but look majestic, and they did this well enough, though again, production values were sometimes a problem. Periodically, Theseus turned his back on the audience and you lost whatever he was saying. While he gave the amazing speech that seems to sum up Dream ("The lunatic, the lover and the poet, are of imagination all compact..."), the tradesmen were busily setting up for their performance behind him, and their thumps and thuds disrupted the rhythm of his words.
Since the four lovers are somewhat generic, Dream rides on the strength of two utterly original characters: meddling Puck, and the great comic creation Bottom. Like the other CSF fairies, Puck (played by Matthew Jasiczek) wore a distracting costume. And his interpretation of the role got lost somewhere between mischievous pixie and bawdy devil. Puck is both these things, but the choices needed to be cleaner, minute by minute. Again, it felt as if a good actor had been derailed by a confused production.
Bottom is a vain and irritating braggart who's constantly demanding attention. He was played by Dennis R. Elkins in a way that audibly delighted the children in the audience but seemed to me so unnuanced and uncentered that I started dreading his entrances. Bottom may be a buffoon, but he's more than that. As a character, he needs...not gravitas, certainly, but weight. More bottom, if you will. He's the only human character in Dream who can interact with the fairies, and he accepts their existence with an almost sublime lack of surprise. Some actors have given Bottom flashes of wonder or even humility, particularly at the moment when he wakes from his enchantment, but Elkins plays for shallow laughs throughout.
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I think my favorite of the tradesmen was Snug, played by understudy Nathan Markiewicz on the night I saw Dream, because he brought a certain innocence and restraint to the role. I also liked Michael Pocaro as Quince. And Eric Wetz had some very funny moments as Wall.
I might have preferred a less broadly farcical interpretation of the role, but Sheryle Wells was a funny Helena; she brought a lot of vitality to the lovers' scenes. Neither she nor Elizabeth Tanner, who plays Hermia, has the ideal vocal range for Shakespeare. Demetrius and Lysander are almost indistinguishable characters, and they're given solid interpretations by Jeremy Clark and R.W. Smith.
What this production lacks is simplicity, elegance and flow.