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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

O Loving Hate!

The Shakespeare Forum, Access Theater, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, December 8, 2012, General Admission (right rear of box theater)
Directed by Tyler Moss

Leo Buscaglia, the late, hug-hungry lecturer who came to be known as “Dr. Love” for teaching his famous Love 1A course at the University of Southern California, said that the opposite of love is not hate but apathy. Hate, in fact, may be the flip side of the love coin and in its way is a form of love—to love someone so much that when our expectations are not met, for whatever reason, our disappointment and hurt take us to the extreme other end of the love passion.

This side of love emerges fully in the Shakespeare Forum’s presentation of the romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It overflows with hate, and it brought tears to my eyes—but that was from laughing so hard.

thisbe in red scarf over his head puckers up as he seems to kiss Bottom between the "chink" (two spread fingers) in the wall
Sam Laakso as Flute as Thisbe (in red scarf) seems to kiss Brad Lewandowski as Bottom as Pyramus through a chink (actually, two fingers) in the Wall (R. Scott Williams as Peter Quince) while Starveling (Kristina Mueller) looks on in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by the Shakespeare Forum

“I am a very big fan of Love,” director Tyler Moss writes in his program notes. “I was drawn to this play because of the immense amount of Love inside its Words. …This is a play of beautiful Words and, to me, they all speak Love.” Including, apparently, the word hate, which appears 18 times in the script.

Hate and love even merge in an exchange between Hermia and Helena about Demetrius: “The more I hate, the more he follows me,” Hermia says. “The more I love, the more he hateth me,” Helena replies. Oberon’s love potion is capable of as much extremity of hate as love. “So thou, my surfeit and heresy,” Lysander says to the sleeping Hermia after he has been infected with love for Helena, “of all be hated, but the most of me!” How much more extreme of hate can you get than desiring that everybody hate the object of your disaffection? Later, Lysander stabs Hermia to the heart repeatedly with the word hate. In the reverse, Titania’s adoration for Bottom turns to loathing when Oberon releases her from the spell.

Shakespeare’s attention to hate in this play informs the action we see on the stage in this production. It even factors into Moss’s switching the first two scenes; this production opens with Peter Quince calling for the actors, who emerge from the audience. The scene of Theseus, Hippolyta, and the trial of Hermia come after. Messing with Shakespeare’s order of scenes often incurs a cost, but in this case, Shakespeare’s order may have been simply the still-maturing playwright establishing his main plot before the subplot. Because the first Theseus scene features so much visible hate in this production, Moss reassures us by opening with the rude mechanicals that we are going to be watching a comedy, and he also effectively juxtaposes the two scenes of royalty, that of Athens and that of the fairy world.

In that first Athenian court scene, the prevailing theme of hatred is established. Egeus (Joris Stuyck) depicts hate in expression, stance, and gesture, a hate aimed more at his daughter (whom he loves most) than Lysander. The two rivals, Lysander (R.J. Foster) and Demetrius (Aaron Gaines), genuinely hate each other, and Lysander’s usually funny line, “You have her father’s love, Demetrius: Let me have Hermia’s—Do you marry him,” is not played for laughs here but leads to Demetrius physically attacking Lysander. Hippolyta (Claire Warden) grows testy with Theseus (Edward Stanley) for his decree to Hermia. “Come, my Hippolyta,” Theseus sternly commands Hippolyta as she sympathetically strokes Hermia’s cheek. She glares back at him. “What cheer, my love?” Theseus remarks with a degree of snideness, prompting her to storm off one way, and he, ordering Demetrius and Egeus to follow him, strides off another. This establishes an enmity already existing between these two actors when they return in the next scene as Titania and Oberon. There’s nothing but lost love in that scene, too.

This tone continues to permeate the main plot of the play. Foster gives an extraordinarily poetic reading of Lysander’s verse (some of the play’s best poetry) delivered with an easy naturalness; but even so, his subsequent hatred for Hermia is intense. Hermia (Lauren Sowa) grows visibly dark as her anger toward Helena increases until her face and whole body turns taut with hatred. Gaines is devoid of any humor and lovability as Demetrius, raging about like a sociopath. I was ready to discount his as a one-note performance—but when he is infected with the love potion, his newfound infatuation with Helena turns him into a giddy, jangling-armed swooner, bouncing around like a little boy walking into Disneyland. The transition, brilliant in Gaines’ playing, not only proves the point of love beneath the hate but imbues the lovers’ quarrel scene with energetic humor as the extremes of love and hate (and Helena’s exasperated confusion) are portrayed in relief.

Helena is the lone person who doesn’t hate but is the greatest victim of hate, and Whitney Egbert plays her with an intelligent sweetness that strikes just the right balance for this difficult-to-pull-off character. She somehow doesn’t seem so ridiculous in her fawning following of Demetrius, even though he’s an unremitting jerk up until the love potion kicks in. She starts off her spaniel allegory in a resigned tone, but then, as if catching on to the possibilities of the metaphor she’s stumbled upon, turns to a seductive mode with “only give me leave, unworthy as I am, to follow you.”

After the lovers come to their resolution of love, we turn to that other contest of hate. As Oberon watches Titania cuddling with the ass-headed Bottom, an envious look passes over him—she is enjoying an intimacy he's obviously missing. “Her dotage now I do begin to pity,” Oberon says. Pity is a degree to love, as Olivia says in Twelfth Night, and we see Oberon’s hate melt away. His application of the love antidote reverses her feelings for Bottom, from love to loathing, and so her natural love for Oberon flows into the vaccum.

Moss has gathered a superb cast for this production, deep in talent, giving singularly strong performances in every role. But perhaps the best actor on the stage is Bottom. I don’t mean simply Brad Lewandowski playing Bottom, I mean Bottom himself. This weaver is a really good classical actor. We get a taste of this in the opening scene when he portrays, in turn, the lover, the tyrant, and the lion with mesmerizing recitals—mesmerizing his fellows and us, too. He is so good in his death speech that while I heard him say “Ay, that left pap, where heart doth hop,” I was still as enthralled by his eloquent delivery as were Theseus and Hippolyta. Funny? Not per se, but…

Many productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and most especially the recent Shakespeare Theatre Company version, make fun of amateur acting companies in the staging of Thisbe and Pyramus, which Shakespeare was surely intending. Moss does this but might be poking a little fun at some professional actors he’s encountered, too. In the rehearsal scene, Flute (Sam Laakso) playing Thisbe is notably not off book yet and trying to cover up this fact. In the performance before the lords, Bottom’s climactic death scene is so good he can’t let the moment pass; he must milk it more. As the royal audience on stage and we, too, are letting the great performance we’ve just seen soak in and Flute prepares to make his entrance as Thisbe, Bottom suddenly jumps up and continues his death scene. Not only are both audiences shocked, Peter Quince (R. Scott Williams) and the other actors (Kristina Mueller as Starveling, Stuyck as Snug) frantically look through their scripts futilely trying to find the speech Bottom’s giving. The house lights remain on throughout this A Midsummer Night's Dream and the actors often directly engage with the audience during the play: Bottom takes this convention to extremes. His Pyramus runs from one audience member to another, having them help him thrust his sword in his bosom with a gleeful “Die.” He finishes with a bewildered Theseus and Hippolyta combining to provide the final, fatal-at-last thrust. Poor Laakso (let alone Flute) has to enter as Thisbe after this tear-inducing hilarity and perform his own death scene. But this Flute is game; he’ll just out-act Bottom, and his death speech pushes more dramatic buttons than Spock at his console on the Enterprise.

There’s a whole lotta love going on here: Thisbe for Pyramus and vice versa; the rude mechanicals for Bottom and vice versa; the lovers for each other and the others. After Oberon and Titania, now united in love, return to the stage to bless the wedding beds so that the couples may “ever true in loving be,” Puck (manically played by David Hywel Baynes) speaks the epilogue, a request for a little love from the audience. It’s hard to clap and wipe away tears at the same time, but I managed to express my love.

If you do a word search for love in this play, the computer returns more than 100 instances. The 18 hates may pale in number, but they somehow are more pronounced, or at least they are in this production. Yet, that only makes the love all the richer.

Eric Minton
December 16, 2012

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