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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Stilts, Zany Deaths, and Shakespearean Truth

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, Drew University, Madison, N.J.
Saturday, March 8, 2014, C-103&104, center orchestra
Directed by Brian B. Crowe

The fairies in fancy wigs, black and white silks and colorful skirts surround purple-haired Titania with a breastplate armor and balloons and the checkerboard backdrop in the background
Titania (Sophia Blum, the tall purple-haired woman in the center) cavorts with her fairies played by (clockwise from Titania's left side) Liz Daingerfield, Isabelle Russo, Travis Johnson, and Michael Striano in the Shakespeare LIVE! touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. The actors playing the attendant fairies also play the Athenian lovers and the rude mechanicals. Photo by Brian B. Crowe, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

The only place that could be more fun than sitting in the audience to watch this fantastic, fantastical Midsummer Night's Dream would be back stage during the costume changes. Four of the eight actors play three parts: the lovers dressed something like dolls in a 19th century nursery, the rude mechanicals resembling 1920s Italian craftsmen, and the fairies as clowns. Two actors play Theseus and Hippolyta in exotic formal wear and then strap on spring stilts and even more exotic formal wear to play Oberon and Titania. The transitions from one character to the next seem to take place in the space of an Alfonso Cuarón edit.

But you certainly don't want to miss what happens on stage in this hour-long school tour production of William Shakespeare's comedy. Meshing the look and performance styles of a silent-era movie, Alice in Wonderland, and a Seussian circus, this concoction is both wondrously Shakespearean and theatrically magical, just the kind of eye and mind candy to make students K through 12 dig The Bard and desire more theater.

It is paired with a modern, Brechtian-tone Julius Caesar in The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's Shakespeare LIVE! 2014 school tour. Geared toward older students and striving for a cool aesthete, Shakespeare's Roman tragedy becomes something of a film noir in its imagery-heavy, modern-dress production. Seeing the two shows back-to-back during the annual Stage Festival, a statewide program by the New Jersey Theatre Alliance aimed at introducing families to the theater arts, deepens appreciation for the talent of this troupe and its challenge in touring these productions to grade, middle, and high schools around New Jersey and into neighboring states.

The actors are their own stage hands, transporting, setting up, and tearing down their sets, which for Dream is a gold curtain backdrop for the Athenian scenes that transitions to a black-and-white checkerboard for the woods, a scaffold serving as Titania's bed, and a couple of ramps, all in checkerboard (director Brian B. Crowe designed the show). They also get no corps of dressers helping them transfer from one Krissy Sneshkof–designed costume to the next. In a post-show talkback session, the actors said they devoted an entire rehearsal to choreographing, blocking, and rehearsing the costume changes. The seconds-long switch from lover to fairy to rude mechanical back stage requires as much teamwork and concentration as the lovers' brawl or the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude on stage.

Pace is paramount in Crowe's direction. The play starts off tenderly enough as Theseus (Jonathan Minton, my son) and Hippolyta (Sophia Blum) express their growing love. However, just as the Athenian duke is about to kiss his Amazon queen, Egeus (Dean Linnard) explodes onto the scene with his daughter and the two rivals for her love. At that point, helter skelter craziness breaks loose. From scene-to-scene and within scenes, too, the play plays at the pace of a Keystone Kops movie.

It all works on four levels. First and foremost is the edit. I'm not a fan of condensed Shakespeare, though I recognize the need to fit a two-plus-hour play into a school assembly timeframe. However, this is the second time (a 50-minute Comedy of Errors I saw in college being the other) that I've seen an edited version of a Shakespeare play as equally satisfying as any uncut edition. No plot point is lost, and little of the gorgeous poetry is sacrificed. At worst, we lose Moonshine in the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude, but the antics of "Waaaaaaaalllllllll" (Michael Striano as Tom Snout), shrill-pitched Thisbe (Travis Johnson as Francis Flute), the shy lion playing with his tail (Isabelle Russo as Snug), and the oh-so-proud-of-himself directing of Peter Quince (Liz Daingerfield) more than make up for it. We certainly don't miss the insulting catcalls of the lovers, as those actors (Striano plays Lysander, Johnson plays Demetrius, Russo plays Hermia, and Daingerfield plays Helena) are occupied as the rude mechanicals in this production (Theseus and Hippolyta are left alone to watch Pyramus and Thisbe, but they are too stunned at the ineptitude to utter anything).

And so to another level of success in this production: its dedication to having fun for fun's sake. The fairies (Striano, Johnson, Russo, and Daingerfield) are constantly gibbering nonsense noise, like the minions in Despicable Me, though their consternated reaction to Titania's new lover, the ass-head-covered Bottom (Linnard) does include a few, discernable non-Shakespearean words in the gibberish. Titania (Blum) and Oberon (Minton) shoot magic spells at each other during their arguments like a Samantha-Serena catfight. Oberon and Puck (Felix Mayes) are not total bystanders during the lovers' quarrel: at one point Oberon freezes the two men just as they are about to engage in fisticuffs and turns his attention to the women, allowing Puck, behind Oberon's back, to readjust the two men so that one is picking his nose and the other will slug himself when they are unsuspended. Russo is the shortest Hermia I've ever seen and Daingerfield playing Helena could be a starting guard for the New York Liberty; this disparity in their sizes enhances the puppet-versus-painted-maypole comedy of the scene. As Helena keeps "urg[ing] her height," Demetrius and Lysander, though dotingly in love with Helena, try to get her to stop doing so, and even Oberon grows increasingly agitated with Helena harping on height.

A third level of success in this production is its Shakespearean sensibilities. In a most surprising touch, Puck anoints the eyes of both Demetrius and Lysander with the love potion antidote as he recites the spell that they would "tak'st true delight in the sight of thy former lady's eye." As Demetrius takes up Helena upon waking, the suggestion is that his originally giving over Helena for Hermia was not true love. When Bottom describes what "methought I had…" Linnard does not reach up to where his ass's ears used to be—a gesture common to most Bottom's I've seen. Rather, he realizes he's still holding the flower Titania has given him, and the line clearly indicates that he is thinking he had a fairy queen for his love. "But man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had."

Minton also proves to be a revealing Theseus. He looks on Hippolyta fondly then reaches out to take her hand as he says, "Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, and won thy love doing thee injuries. But I will wed thee in another key." This line Minton delivers imploringly, as a Theseus genuinely in love with the conquered queen and, thus, genuinely repentant for "doing thee injuries." He also shows sympathy for Hermia and annoyance that Egeus would be so strict with her, but makes clear—especially to an angry Hippolyta—that he is bound by Athenian law to take the course he decrees. "What cheer, my love?" he calls out futilely after Hippolyta as she storms off, then in frustrated agitation, "Demetrius and Egeus, go along." Minton's Oberon, on the other hand, has a streak of petulant immaturity in him, sharing a secret silly handshake with Puck. He again displays sympathy for the Athenian mortals, but toward his own wife, he is something snarky. And so, the play's most famous, most poetic speech—"I know a bank where the wild thyme blows…"—is delivered in the exact context in which it appears, an angry Oberon gleefully plotting a vicious prank on his wife: the speech is still poetical, but Minton gives it a definite—and funny—edge. He and Blum both turn the nature of spring stilts into character characteristics. We can occasionally see the stilts' footpads, which suggests hooves, and as they bounce even when standing still, both Blum and Minton evoke the suggestion of Titania and Oberon being fauns—high-strung fauns, to be sure.

That leads us to the ultimate level of success in this production: the acting, from performing on stilts or engaging in circus acrobatics to exquisite delivery of Shakespeare's verse. Such is the strength of the ensemble acting (and changing costumes) that it would be unfair for me to single out any one particular performance; but, I can't help myself, as one performance brought real tears to my eyes—and yet, it wasn't in the play itself.

Linnard's Bottom is delightful, from his delusional sense of himself as a great actor to his bewilderment at being the object of affection of a fairy queen (the ass's head he wears is not capable of expression, so he does it with posture). For his death scene as Pyramus, he takes each "die" as a different form of death beyond merely stabbing himself: for one "die" he pantomimes an archer shooting the sword like an arrow which, downrange, slices through his breast, with blood (red fabric) coming out the other side. For his final "die," Linnard's Bottom pantomimes playing with a jack-in-the-box that he winds up as he hums "Pop goes the weasel," and the sword appears to thrust up through his head. It's more stupid than sick, and thus it is in this tableaux that Thisbe finds him, providing more comical stage business. Linnard revealed in the post-show talkback that during rehearsals he had offered up several other "die" options, whereupon the rest of the cast urged him to act out their favorites: eating poisoned food, being torn apart by horses, and being run over by a train. Before he performed these during the talkback, the rest of the troupe scampered off the stage to sit among the audience to watch.

So, I guess being in the audience is the best place to be for this Midsummer Night's Dream.

Eric Minton
March 14, 2104

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