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A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play

It's All in Your Head

Stratford Festival, Masonic Concert Hall, Stratford, Ontario
Saturday, August 30, 2014, B–10&11, Front right in small hall
Adapted and Directed by Peter Sellars

The black man in tight multi-patterend t-shert and jeans is facing the white woman in a long, checkered dress, her sleeveless arms embracing his arms, as the white man in pale t-shirt and dark pants looks at the black man
From left, Dion Johnstone, Trish Lindstöm, and Mike Nadajewski perform in the Peter Sellars-helmed, Stratford Festival production of A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play at the Masonic Concert Hall. Below is Sarah Afful. Photos by Michael Cooper, Stratford Festival.

"If we offend, it is with our good will," says Peter Quince as the Prologue to Pyramus and Thisbe in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Normally, that's a comic line, a slipup by the nervous pedantic as he and his fellow rude mechanicals stage their play before Duke Theseus, his bride Hippolyta, and the two other pairs of noble newlyweds. But not in this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Here, that line is the essential truth of the entire production, adapted and directed by theater pioneer and avant-garde classicist Peter Sellars.

This Stratford Festival production is officially titled A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play, being staged with four actors in the small concert hall of the Masonic building in downtown Stratford, Ontario; but it could also be called "A Midsummer Nightmare." While some directors explore the dark undertow of Shakespeare's hallucinogenic comic romp, Sellars turns that undertow into the raging current of the play, emphasizing the cruelty characters perpetrate on each other and their subsequent feelings of displacement. Here there are no lovers and fairies and rude mechanicals; here there are only abusers, victims, and, well, rude mechanicals. Or, as one company staff member working the theater's box office said, "This takes A Midsummer Night's Dream and sucks all the humor out of it."

That's not a bad thing if it's a good thing. I approach that point from both a Shakespearean perspective and the perspective of a man who has bad dreams.

Sellars strives for total immersion of the audience into his dreamscape, and joining director and actors as the production's stars is Abigail DeVille, credited as set and installation artist. Either we've been caught in Dorothy's tornado or thrown into a large skip parked outside grandmom's house after the funeral. With a small proscenium arch stage at the front of the theater, we otherwise are surrounded by clutter stuck to the walls and ceilings: tables, lots of chairs, doors (including a screen door), artwork, a fan, at least two ironing boards, bed springs, a car grill here, a car fender there, various building sidings, bed posts, gas can, rug, shovel, mattresses, toilet, and a home movie screen. The lighting by James F. Ingalls subtly swings through moods of blue, amber, green, and red, except at the very start of the play which begins in absolute darkness—I mean, a-mile-inside-an-unexplored-cave kind of darkness. A soundtrack of atmospheric noises fills our aural scape, now and during the show (Tareke Ortiz is the sound designer): wind, traffic, white noise, electronic noise, and, at a key point, total silence. "It sounds as if we are inside a body," my wife, Sarah, says. At the moment of Titania's waking, we can hear in the soundtrack a girl faintly singing a nursery rhyme, though it's in a minor key and soon sounds like a castrato monk at evensong.

That's not entirely accurate because it's not necessarily Titania waking. Before going any farther I need to set some ground rules here. Each actor plays multiple parts in the play (the script is entirely from and in the sequence of Shakespeare's Dream), but these parts blend into a single person; therefore, we cannot identify them as Shakespeare's individual characters. Because they are thematically what they are physically, for ease of identification I will henceforth refer to them as, in order of speaking, the Black Man, the Black Woman, the White Woman, and the White Man.

  • The Black Man (Dion Johnstone) is Theseus, Demetrius, Bottom, and First Fairy/Changeling.
  • The Black Woman (Sarah Afful) is Hippolyta, Helena, Thisbe, Puck, and Peaseblossom.
  • The White Woman (Trish Lindström) is Hermia, Snug (Lion), Titania, and Wall.
  • The White Man (Mike Nadajewski) is Lysander, Quince, Oberon, Cobweb, Mustardseed, and Moonshine.

In a performance that lasts one hour and 45 minutes without intermission, these four actors—dressed by Costume Designer Gabriel Berry in modern, everyday clothes—yank out every raw nerve in their being and slam them about the stage. They are intense in their torment and their tormenting, and the action is as physically abusive as it is psychologically discomforting. It's a group therapy session of psychopaths in a small, unpadded room. Without a moderator.

All of this is in A Midsummer Night's Dream? Yes, depending on how you read the lines, starting with the Black Man telling the Black Woman, "Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword, and won thy love, doing thee injuries." She hasn't gotten over these injuries; and he's not about to let her forget them, either. The White Man speaks Quince's line announcing the title of the mechanicals' play as "The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe," giving a leeringly gleeful expression to the word cruel. The Black Man turns Bottom's malapropism "There we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously" into an intended sneer: he can't wait to rehearse obscenely. When the White Woman is told her part as Lion is nothing but roaring, she ROARS! with a samurai's death yell.

By the players bundling their individual parts into single characters, we see common personality threads running through Shakespeare's creations. The Black Man's Theseus/Demetrius/Bottom is a misogynistic, violent jerk. Puck's line, "My mistress with a monster is in love," is no joke—especially as speaking that line is the Black Woman, who, as Hippolyta/Helena/Thisbe, is the chief victim of Black Man's abuse. When the Black Man enacts Bottom playing out Hercules "to make all split," he physically assaults the Black Woman, shoving her against the wall as he yells at her about "The raging rocks / And shivering shocks / Shall break the locks / Of prison gates; / And Phibbus' car / Shall shine from far / And make and mar / The foolish Fates." He then smiles as he says, "This was lofty."

This relationship takes another distressing turn when the Black Woman presents herself to the Black Man as his spaniel. "The more you beat me, I will fawn on you: Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me, neglect me, lose me; only give me leave, unworthy as I am, to follow you." Current headlines in the United States prove this staging to be most prescient. Note, too, that in combining Helena with Puck, it is the Black Woman who applies the love juice to the eyes of the Black Man.

The White Man strings together the strands of cruelty that appear in Lysander and Oberon and—though I've never seen it before—Quince. The White Woman finds the common theme of victimization in Hermia, Titania, Snug, and, most insightfully, in Wall, "that had in it a crannied hole or chink." "Sweet wall, show me your chink," the Black Man says to her, and then afterward, "O wicked wall, through whom I see no bliss, cursed be thy stones for thus deceiving me." In the lovers' quarrel scene, Helena offers to return right away to Athens, whereupon Hermia tells her to go. "What is't that hinders you?" the White Woman asks. Here it is, literally, the White Woman hindering the Black Woman, clasping her in an insecure embrace. "A foolish heart, that I leave here behind," the Black Woman says. In the play, she means Demetrius though Hermia thinks she means Lysander; here she means Hermia, aka the White Woman.

Some, depending on their own prejudices, might see racist overtones to these portrayals, but Sellars definitely is rubbing raw one social itch: black men coupling with white women. The first blatant evidence of this is in Bottom asking Quince, "What is Pyramus? a lover, or a tyrant?" When the Black Man says "lover," he reaches lovingly for the White Woman; when he says "tyrant," he reaches angrily for the Black Woman. Speaking Theseus's passage comparing the madman, poet, and lover, when the Black Man describes how the lover "Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt," he searchingly strokes the face of the Black Woman. After Philostrate's description of Pyramus and Thisbe as "a tedious brief seen" and "very tragical mirth," the Black Man responds with, "Merry and tragical! Tedious and brief! That is, hot ice and wondrous strange snow," whereupon the Black Woman slaps him.

"How shall we find the concord in this discord?" the Black Man says next, after a pause. The foursome use the playing out of Pyramus and Thisbe as their means to reconciliation. By playing the fictitious characters, they discover their shared humanity, even though three of those characters are a Wall, a Lion, and Moonshine. A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play ends in something like a group hug with four, spent actors.

The black woman sits on the stage, wereing dark pleated tank dress over shin-length tights, her head tilted up and a tear running down her cheek"This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard," says Hippolyta, and even when the Black Woman speaks it in this production, the line incites a laugh. Maybe some in the audience are venting their own true feelings at the moment, for in one degree this is nothing but an overwrought soap opera, a telenovela with good acting. But others are notably moved by what's been happening on stage. For my part, I welcome opportunities to see such manipulations of Shakespeare's works to delve into different realms of the human experience, and has reviewed many such examples. This, in fact, is the second time this year an adaptation of Shakespeare has taken us deep inside the mind and into a variety of madness, the first being Enter Ophelia, distracted at Taffety Punk in June. Whereas Enter Ophelia, distracted offers an insightful perspective on Shakespeare's Hamlet as well as true insights into how mental illness can slowly disintegrate a mind, this Chamber Dream seems more an exercise in the director's ingenuity.

I'm a man who dreams, almost always, when I sleep. These are dreams that usually leave me in confused moods when I awake, that leave me saddened, that leave me insatiably horny, but that rarely leave me with the kind of rich images that, to borrow a line from The Tempest, made me cry to dream again. On several occasions, Sarah has awakened me after my shouting awakened her. And yet, I feel little emotional connection with Sellars' 1:45-hour dream state. It is aesthetically interesting and academically intriguing with four courageous actors going places I try to run from. It challenges me in the way a puzzle or Rubik's Cube challenges me to line up the characters and connect their dots, and it also offers a new perspective on Bully Bottom. But, no, I don't see myself or my world up there—not like I do watching Shakespeare's originally intended comic presentation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Eric Minton
September 12, 2104

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