The lights are up, the applause has died down, and the most awkward moment in every live theater production begins. Before you take the requisite stroll to the end of the balcony and peek out at the Mississippi, or squeeze onto the longest escalator in Minnesota, or pass the fancy restaurant and labyrinthine passageways of the Guthrie’s uniform architectural performance — there is that awkward, unavoidable transition from theater to life. One moment you’re part of a four hundred-year-old play about horny teenagers. The next you’re watching your neighbors, shuffling your feet, and wondering about where you parked and what you should say next to your date.
It’s almost, as Shakespeare put it, like we “have just slumbered here while these visions did appear.” The focused illusion of fiction disperses. The pragmatic world of light and sound comes rushing back in. Shakespeare wrote better, more compelling plays than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, many of which are trotted out far less frequently. However, it’s hard to begrudge the enduring appeal of such a whimsical oddity. Midsummer encourages the worst impulses in its audience. We’re meant to wake from its spell — like the lovelorn Greek teenagers lost in the woods, Bottom the hammy actor magically turned into a donkey, or Titania the fairy queen bewitched into becoming Bottom’s lover — a little embarrassed with ourselves and the moonstruck leaps we’re all capable of making in our most vulnerable hour.
Joe Dowling’s latest adaptation of the Bard embraces all of that. The costumes and sets (courtesy of Riccardo Hernandez and Fabio Toblini) conform to no specific time or place — they’re an artless pastiche compiled from dream logic. Much of the verse is rendered in Broadway-esque musical numbers that, if nothing else, really do feel like the pinnacle of embarrassing self-revelation. The buxom youth are quickly stripped down to their underwear. Might as well. The grownups relish the opportunity to ham it up like children. The laughs available here aren’t the knowing, tasteful titter of the cultural elite. Even as we sit alongside Greek royalty, we’re howling at slapstick and sexual innuendo like a drunken medieval London rabble.
One man shuffling up the stairs in front of me chimed, “I’m not sure that’s how Bill would have done it.”
Yes, Bill: Bill who ended his opus with a tongue-in-cheek apology for his “weak and idle theme;” Bill who probably laughed himself silly at the thought that high schools the world over would perform a play in which a woman has congress with an ass; Bill who wrote large portions of Julius Caesar and King Lear to show off how the new Globe theater could produce impressive storm effects (“a tempest dropping fire?” Sure Bill, I bet the thunder effects were great). If you want to kill Shakespeare for good, that sort of reverence is the best place to start. Make him stuffy. Make him erudite. Make him everything but the kind of person who would write one of the strangest, most irreverent plays in the English language.
For this reason alone I want to give this production a pass. The performances are generally excellent. All the teenagers, particularly Emily Kitchens as Helena, exude that kind of exposed nerve vulnerability that gives the play its mythical quality. Helena bears a violent unrequited love for young soldier Demitrius, who himself loves Hermia who loves Lysander. At the bottom of this soap opera food chain, Helena laments the lack of attention; but when magical spirits turn the tables and make her the object of the young men’s desire, she refuses to believe it. Like Shakespeare’s best characters, there’s tremendous honesty in her exaggerations. Anyone who finds themselves laughing at rather than with her is lying about just how crazy they’ve become in the throes of love.
Meanwhile Peter Quince’s comedy troupe, which I’ve always found to be one of the dullest, most bewildering detours in Shakespeare, absolutely steals the show. Depicted in true local form like a humorless Lutheran community theater, the classist farce takes on new dimensions of relatability. Peter Weems as the infamous Nick Bottom can seemingly do no wrong, embracing every excess and hogging every spotlight with charismatic glee. The play is worth the price of admission for this ensemble alone.
And yet just as Dowling makes use of the best talent and Shakespeare scholarship money can buy, his production also falls prey to just about every possible pitfall. The stage is animated with screensaver animation and showy visual effects that beg the audience to enjoy themselves despite the play instead of because of it. Those big musical numbers evoke the same response. In theory I can appreciate the idea that this play is meant to be enjoyed idly, much the same way we approach Wicked and The Lion King. In practice however, it just feels like one more layer of distance between Bard and audience. Shakespeare, for all his virtues, never tried to be Sondheim. The best way to make his verse sound trite and antiquated is to dress it up as something hypermodern. There is probably a way to turn these moments into funny, suggestive musical diversions. This is simply not it.
Furthermore the staging is just a mess. The Wurtele Thrust is transformed into a round, possibly to invoke the feeling of sitting on a lawn in the middle of the forest. Unfortunately, this also means that the actors spend far too much time playing to all sides of the auditorium. If you took a shot every time a character ran around the stage in a circle for no apparent reason, you’d be drunk under your seat before intermission. Also, the intense choreography and high flying acrobatics tonally undercut any sort of intimacy the round would provide. Dowling seems to have no higher priority than making the show fun and accessible. The problem is that Midsummer is already fun and accessible. The true challenge is making it feel magical, something the actors manage a few times but only in spite of their surroundings.
I have no problem with theaters, including and especially the Guthrie, trotting out standard Shakespeare time and time again. These plays have untapped depths that are only reached a few times in a hundred performances — they’re always worth revisiting for the off chance you’ll discover something you never noticed before. Beneath Midsummer’s plotless whimsy lies an enchanting homage to the creative human spirit. Shakespeare pretends to have nothing more on his mind that his puckish sprites confounding the audience at their fancy. However closer reflection unveils the kind of deep thematic interests that make English professors blush.
What are the lovestruck teens but beautiful emotional train wrecks that have drawn the tired masses to the stage for millennia? What are the sprites but the disillusioned writer trying to manipulate these feelings into something surprising or new? What is this mystical night in ancient Greece but an older version of tonight or tomorrow night, only in a younger world seen through younger eyes that still see fairies and magic in every star and sound? Like the Greek plays it draws from, A Midsummer Night’s Dream reduces its ambitions to something at once simple and near-religious: an invitation for all of us to sit and dream together.
When Dowling and his team embrace this and trust their performers and audience, it’s a winning combination. When they worry we might stop paying attention, they give into the same insecurity as Peter Quince’s inept troupe. The difference between using generic stage art to depict magic and writing a prologue explaining to the audience that the lion on stage isn’t really a lion is more or less semantic.
Photos courtesy of: Guthrie Theater (Dan Norman)