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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Dream of People, Puppets, and Imagination

Bristol Old Vic, Handspring Puppet Company,
Eisenhower Theater, John
F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.
Saturday, March 22, 2014, D-111&112, front row center orchestra
Directed by Tom Morris

Bottom, played by Miltos Yerolemou in a most courageous performance, spoke some of his lines to the woman sitting next to us, using direct eye contact as good actors do. Puck, meanwhile, gave a whole speech to me, our gazes locked on each other. Seldom have I seen eyes so intensely animated as his eyes —or, rather, as its eyes are.

Puck's eyes are actually the nozzles on an industrial spray gun that serves as the fairy's head held above an upside-down basket that serves as his body, while his arms and legs are a garden pitchfork, a saw, a mallet, and a brush (Puck sometimes walks like a dog, other times stands on his mallet and brush). Three actors, as puppeteers, manipulate two body parts each and speak the character's lines in tandem, resulting in one of the most personable Pucks I've ever seen and certainly the most magical. When he departs on Oberon's errands, he dissipates as the three actors issue a unified "whoosh" while going their disparate ways carrying their two Puck parts apiece.

Oberon in brown leather vest with a giant hand at the end of one arm and a giant head at the end of the other
David Ricardo-Pearce as Oberon in the Bristol Old Vic/Handspring Puppet Company production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Simon Annand, Kennedy Center.

Bold acting and fascinating puppetry, in conjunction and in combination, are the most notable attributes of this cleverly staged version of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, produced by England's Bristol Old Vic and South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. Even without the use of puppets to portray the fairies or fairy-transformed Bottom, this production, playing as part of the Kennedy Center's World Stages: International Theater Festival 2014, would be a standout Dream on acting talent and Tom Morris's clever staging alone. Nevertheless, the puppets are what make this such a singular production, but rather than the puppetry extending Shakespeare's range in this play, it is his play that extends the range of puppetry.

When you think puppets, you think, well, puppets: dolls fitted onto a hand and manipulated by the wearer's fingers or marionettes dangling from manipulative strings. Or you think of Muppets, combining hand, head, and stick controls. Since its founding in 1981, Handspring, drawing on African puppetry traditions using masks and figurines, has broken through all Western conceptual confines of puppetry, culminating with the full-bodied equine stars of the National Theatre's international hit War Horse.

The puppets in this Midsummer Night's Dream come from more common stock, even though they portray spirits of no common rate. With the play set in Hippolyta's sculpting studio (Vicki Mortimer is the production's designer), Morris draws on the play's theme of imagination to form his puppets. Says Theseus: "Such tricks hath strong imagination, that if it would but apprehend some joy, it comprehends some bringer of that joy; or in the night, imagining some fear, how easy is a bush supposed a bear." In such manner does an arrangement of typical workplace tools become Puck. Moth is Fionn Gill flapping two flyswatters he holds up to his chest. Peaseblossom (a bird skeleton), Mustardseed (clown) and Cobweb (baby) are large dolls on poles. These are no Tinker Bells but the kind of fairies that Elizabethans considered monsters. Cobweb squeals "kissie kissie" as he hovers over Bottom, shrieks, and Bottom screams. The pucker-lipped Cobweb then hovers over the audience squealing "kissie kissie" a couple more times before shrieking, revealing the kind of teeth you'd see in a newborn Ridley Scott alien. The audience screams.

Oberon and Titania are the heads of two statues that Hippolyta is sculpting for her wedding to Theseus; Oberon is supplemented by a giant manipulatable hand, and Hippolyta by a—well, we'll get to that. The heads of the royal fairies are static, more like masks than puppets, that the actors (David Ricardo-Pearce playing Theseus/Oberon and Saskia Portway playing Hippolyta/Titania) merely hold above their heads. The personalities of these heads emote from the way they tilt, turn, and maintain stillness. And we, the audience, end up watching the head instead of the actor. "We need you to apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends in order to imagine our puppets into life," Morris writes in his program notes. "Without you, they are inert bundles of twig and metal. With you, especially if you are mad, poetical, or in love, they can achieve anything you want."

Full disclosure here: I am mad and in love (you judge whether I'm poetical). My wife claims that our house is the most animated since the Beast's mansion welcomed the beauty Belle to be its guest. In our home, teddy bears play with trains, read magazines, help out with the ledger, and rummage around in lingerie drawers, while at Christmastime, Annalee elves party in the wine cellar and complain about clutter in the office. Maybe none of that seems strange, but the socks romping around the bed, glasses whose feelings are easily hurt, and a neck pillow that cavorts with hotel pillows when we travel are also common occurrences (over the years, Sarah has gotten used to all this activity by clothes, plush toys, and other supposedly inanimate objects wherever we go). So, from my perspective, a mask showing emotion or a nozzle staring longingly into my eyes is no great stretch of logic. It's all in the imagination of the beholder (and based on the audible reactions in the Eisenhower Theater, many beholders had appreciative imaginations for this Dream).

The imagination of the puppeteers plays an important part, too. Take Puck: Gill, Saikat Ahamed, and Lucy Tuck never play to the audience as they manipulate the six objects that comprise the fairy formally known as Robin Goodfellow, but rather they play to Puck himself, as if their own facial and body expressions are somehow being transferred into the movements of the nozzle and saw and brush. I've noticed such concentrated characterization in other puppetry, too (two that come to mind are the child in a Metropolitan Opera production of Madame Butterfly and John Cusack's sidewalk marionette shows in the film Being John Malkovich).

The puppeteers, by the way, are the actors, all dressed in modern rustic wear. Ahamed plays Snug (culturally as well as linguistically naïve, but winningly cute playing the lion), Tuck plays Starveling (frustrated that she isn't cast as Thisbe), and Gill plays Snout. Tuck also manages Mustardseed, Gill is Moth, and the other rude mechanicals handle the other attendant fairies (Christopher Keegan, doing the kissie kissie Cobweb, is an earnest Flute as he tackles the part of Thisbe). The entire cast does board duty, too. Akin to the play's more traditional puppetry, the actors carry planks of varying lengths and wood which become the trees in the forest, banks on which mortals and spirits sleep, and sounds of the magic in the night as the actors tap on them. In a great oooh-ahhhh moment, the boards move up behind Titania and spread out to become her fairy wings, true ensemble puppetry.

The strangest puppet of all is, ironically, a character Shakespeare originally portrayed as a puppet: Bottom. When he is transformed, Yerolemou walks in from the side speaking his Pyramus lines, wearing a tasseled, brown skullcap and funny shoes. You get just enough time to think, "That's an unimpressive ass's head," when, halfway across the stage, he collides with what looks like a cart while another actor yanks his pants down revealing a furry thong underneath and Yerolemou literally goes bottom up: the tassel on his cap becomes the donkey's tale, his shoes become the donkey's ears as he bends his legs, and, perforce, his rear end becomes his face. As Yerolemou maneuvers the cart around with his hands and delivers his lines face-down, Titania becomes enamored of an ass, literally. Go ahead and read these scenes with this image and you'll see so many lines serving as double entendres: "You see an asshead of your own, do you?" Bottom says to the frightened Snout; "So is mine eye enthrallèd to thy shape," Titania says to Bottom, and "I will purge thy mortal grossness"; "Come, sit thee down upon this flow'ry bed while I thy amiable cheeks do coy," she says later as she kisses Yerolemou's ass. She will ride on Bottom's back, and at one point we see her at the back of the stage riding Bottom with his ears pointing down to the ground. Given that Portway plays Titania in such a naturally dignified way throughout, this pairing explicitly illustrates how silly the love potion has made her.

Another production-pertinent joke within Shakespeare's script comes with the Helena insult that most angers Hermia: "You counterfeit, you puppet, you!" Akiya Henry speaks Hermia's lines with a measured cadence that comes across as superficial, until she gets mad at Helena (Naomi Cranston in a nervous, needy reading), and suddenly Henry delivers her verse with such volcanic intensity—an eruption that starts with her hammer-hard echo reply to Helena: "Puppet?"—it inspires midscene applause.

The presence of real puppets would seem to put the staging device ahead of the Shakespeare, but Morris's direction keeps the play's plot, dialogue, and thematic arcs the production's primary focus. And he has gathered a superb cast. Aside from his courageous turn as an ass (and turn to his ass), Yerolemou is a flabby, vociferous Bottom who can tear a cat with disturbing realism and don close-fitting yellow pants that pinch his belly as he plays Pyramus. In every way this Bottom is so ridiculous his very appearance makes us laugh; but Yerolemou's line readings make us laugh just as much, and he ends up being a Bottom we care deeply about. The strikingly handsome Ricardo-Pearce is a suavely commanding Theseus and a smooth Oberon. His opposite, Portway as Hippolyta and Titania, gets one of the night's biggest laughs immediately after Oberon lifts his spell off her and tells her, "There lies your love." She sees Bottom's bottom with nary a reaction before turning back to Oberon and asking with piercing suspicion, "How came these things to pass?" immediatly putting Ricardo-Pearce's Oberon on the defensive. The lovers (Kyle Lima as Demetrius and Alex Felton as Lysander, along with Cranston and Henry) are knockabout funny in the woods while maintaining sophisticated handling of the verse, bringing out the lines' richness without ever sounding artificial.

The lovers also become the denouement's focal point. After Puck arrives to "sweep the dust behind the door," doing so with his left foot (the brush), Hippoolyta's completed statues of Titania and Oberon come to life at the back of the stage with Portway and Ricardo-Pearce now full-fledged puppeteers inside. They come forward and bless the Athenian lovers who now entangle—properly paired—on their wedding nights: though, if you notice, the red ribbon representing the herbal juice that creates the love potion is still tied around Demetrius's wrist. Meanwhile, Oberon and Titania move offstage sharing the Indian changeling boy (Ahamed) between them, a nice touch of reconciliation over the object of their falling out that sets off the Fairyland plot.

The production ends here. No epilogue. The play nor this performance needs no excuse, as Theseus would say. Still, it would have been nice to get one final moment with Puck. The nozzle-headed, basket-bodied, tool-limbed fairy is such an animated little guy.

Eric Minton
March 27, 2104

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