A Midsummer Night's Dream

What Fools These Players Be

Review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hartford Stage

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has much to delight. With three stories that dovetail into one, the play offers at the heart of each story comic elements that have kept audiences entertained for generations. In one story, four Athenian youths—Hermia (Jenny Leona), Lysander (Tom Pecinka), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson), Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet)—are caught up in a love triangle, overruled by Hermia’s father Egeus (Robert Hannon Davis) in a dispute brought to the attention of King Theseus (Esau Pritchett). Meanwhile in the forest, the fairy rulers Oberon (Pritchett) and Titania (Scarlett Strallen) are sparring over who should get custody of a changeling child. And a troupe of Athenian workmen, rehearsing in the forest, are putting together a play for the nuptials of Theseus and his bride Hippolyta (Strallen). Mistaken identity, love potions, metamorphosis, fits of jealousy, and ham-fisted theatrics combine to make the play a celebration of the different worlds theater can manifest.

Last year at Hartford Stage, director Darko Tresnjak gave us a silly, effervescent Comedy of Errors and seems determined to do the same with Midsummer. The problem, though, is that the latter play doesn’t lend itself as well to over-the-top hamming. That doesn’t mean the game cast doesn’t do all it can to provide belly laughs at almost every turn, but somewhere amidst all the preening and posturing, the pointing hands and waving arms, the crotch-grabbing and air-humping, the lampoons of American method actors by a showboat Bottom (John Lavelle) and the gauche ardors of lovers in school uniforms, a wise, witty, and sumptuously lyrical text goes missing.

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hartford Stage (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hartford Stage (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

That might not matter to everyone, and there is method in the director’s decision to rein in the set while unleashing the actors. This strategy gives us an English country estate, particularly its gatehouse, for Athens, complete with an ordered park as environs. When Lysander and Hermia, supposedly at large in the wilds, lie a little further off amidst trim hedges and park benches, something seems awry. It’s that kind of disjunction that may keep a viewer waiting for a moment when something like the playwright’s vision might occur. One supposes it’s to be found in an obscene prop that accompanies Brent Bateman’s eager turn as Snout as Wall.

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), Oberon (Esau Pritchett)

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), Oberon (Esau Pritchett)

Theseus, as everyone knows, is kind of a killjoy. Here, I found myself taking his side. It helps that Esau Pritchett gives the king much dignity, though he doesn’t seem much different when he becomes Oberon, but for his very becoming tunic. As Hippolyta, Scarlett Strallen looks good in a riding habit, with dark hair, and as Titania, she’s a begowned blonde who has the intonation to make the verse, and sometimes song as well, come alive. Her doting upon the “translated” Bottom is quite the set-piece it’s meant to be and the attendant fairy-maids (Melody Atkinson, Gabrielle Filloux, Anne O’Sullivan, Madison Vice) may be commended for actually downplaying what are often flamboyant parts, though the notion of an otherworldly fairy realm is lessened to nothingness. The lack of feyness in the fairy world is compounded by Will Apicella’s vigorous Puck, the least beguiling version I’ve ever seen.

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), above, Bottom (John Lavelle), below

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), above, Bottom (John Lavelle), below

One imagines the lovers would fare better if differently presented. In their school uniforms, they look immature and, suitably, act petulant rather than passionate. That tone, once established, helps to make their plight comic from the first, and then it’s just a matter of who will run farthest with it. I would single out Fedna Laure Jacquet for highest praise—as Helena, petulance suits her, and since she’s able to fawn like a dog and coquette like an awkward doll, she inspires the most laughter. Tom Pecinka’s Lysander and Damian Jermaine Thompson’s Demetrius get in some fun as boyish rivals à la “Our Gang,” while Jenny Leona makes Hermia’s turn at jealousy very vivid.

Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson)

Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson)

Vivid too are those mechanicals, with John Lavelle as a Bottom whose well of mugging and vocal mannerisms hath no bottom, abetted by Matthew Macca as a lollipop-licking Flute. The point of the play within a play seems to be to show that, once upon a stage, a player will strut for all he can.

left to right: Flute (Matthew Macca), Starveling (Alexander Sovronsky), Bottom (John Lavelle), Snout (Brent Bateman), Snug (Louis Tuccci), Peter Quince (Robert Hannon Davis)

left to right: Flute (Matthew Macca), Starveling (Alexander Sovronsky), Bottom (John Lavelle), Snout (Brent Bateman), Snug (Louis Tuccci), Peter Quince (Robert Hannon Davis)

The critic G. K. Chesterton is quoted in the playbill as proclaiming that “the supreme literary merit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a merit of design.” By “design,” he means of course what we would mean by structure, the way the different worlds of the play impinge on one another to create a world in which magic—whether of love, fairies, or inspired clods—triumphs. Hartford Stage’s production gets demerits for design, as an unusually static take on this fluid play. Its failings help to show how much a play may be the creature of its appearance. The supreme merit this production aims for, and sometimes hits, is a merit of display.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Joshua Pearson; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Projection Design: Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley; Wig Design: Jodi Stone; Composer & Music Director: Alexander Sovronsky; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Choreographer: Thomas Schall; Voice & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Casting: Laura Stanczyk, CSA; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Will Apicella, Melody Atkinson, Brent Bateman, Robert Hannon Davis, Gabrielle Filloux, Fedna Laure Jacquet, John Lavelle, Jenny Leona, Matthew Macca, Anne O’Sullivan, Tom Pecinka, Esau Pritchett, Alexander Sovronsky, Scarlett Strallen, Damian Jermaine Thompson, Louis Tucci, Madison Vice

Hartford Stage
September 7-October 8, 2017

Devising Shakespeare

The Yale Summer Cabaret prepares to launch Midsummer

In the basement of 217 Park Street, home of the Yale Summer Cabaret, transformation is afoot. First, there is the yearly conversion of the space from what it once was to what it will be. That transformation, so far, involves a load of red paint and a lot of elbow grease to eradicate the décor of last season’s Cab.

Then there’s the transformation that is taking place upstairs in the studio space where this summer’s first show has rehearsed for two weeks. That transformation involves remaking A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s best-known and oft-produced comedies, into something surprising and never-before-seen. A sea-change into something rich and strange?

That’s the intent of Artistic Director Sara Holdren and Co-Artistic Director Rachel Carpman who have adapted the play into a show, called simply Midsummer, that draws upon virtually every play in the Shakespeare corpus. Holdren, who directs the show, is out to “turn the play inside out,” and “stand it on its head.” MND, if anyone doesn't know, is the play with the court of Athens, represented by Theseus, and the woods, to which the lovers flee and where they get mixed up, and where the fairies frolic whilst their King Oberon and Queen Titania fight over a changeling child, and where “the mechanicals” (workers) rehearse their hamfisted attempt to adapt, for the court’s pleasure, the love story of Pyramus and Thisbe. In far too many handlings of the play, one or another of these realms gets short-shrift, but Midsummer aims to recast the emphasis of the play, finding the mix that will manifest as much Shakespearean magic as possible.

Emily Reeder, Rachel Carpman, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Melanie Field, Sara Holdren, Flo Low, Andrew Griffin

Emily Reeder, Rachel Carpman, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Melanie Field, Sara Holdren, Flo Low, Andrew Griffin

To create the transformative landscape she has in mind for her Rough Magic Company, Holdren has asked two scenic designers, Chris Thompson and Claire Deliso, to collaborate. While this is a new endeavor for both, the old “two heads are better than one” adage seems to be true. Thompson and Deliso find that, at the points where either might be stumped at making a choice, having the other’s input gets them through the impasse more quickly and agreeably. And, with the show opening next Thursday for a three-week run, time is of the essence.

Though, it should be said, not as much as is usual for the Cab, which, in term-time, puts up 18 new shows weekly. In summer, things slow closer to the prep time for the Yale School of Drama shows (all but one cast member are either current YSDers or just graduated). For actors in Summer Cab such as Melanie Field and Shaunette Renée Wilson, the extended rehearsal time seems like an almost embarrassing luxury. Over three weeks for rehearsal while not working, as Wilson says, on “at least five other things?” Magical indeed.

What’s more, Holdren professes the ideal of a theatrical troupe—an ad hoc body that forms and maintains itself over time, treating all its productions to a collaborative spirit. That working ethos attracted Field and Wilson from the very first try-outs. Auditioning actors were asked, unusually, to collaborate in group scenes, and the exercise, Field says, provided the actors with a “sense of the generosity to devise and play and to listen and get in tune,” and that in turn promotes the adventures outside the box that the company is after all summer long.

For Andrew Griffin, lighting designer, part of the incentive to create theater in a basement is his working relationship with the team Holdren has gathered. He and Thompson and sound designer Sinan Zafar all did truly magical work last fall for Holdren’s thesis show, The Master and Margarita. Their task is to make lightning strike twice, and to create some of the same artistry at probably a fraction of the cost. Magic, yes, but “rough magic,” don’t forget. Cabaret shows take place in a basement that is also a restaurant, and audiences have to be willing to enter into the spirit of imaginative make-believe that is key to all theater but particularly true of the Cab.

The Rough Magic Company

The Rough Magic Company

One of the aspects of the show that came out of the team’s initial efforts was a decision to focus a bit more on the “changeling” child that Titania and Oberon are dueling over, another was the idea of making the play the mechanicals enact relevant to the story of the lovers lost in the woods. Improve upon the Bard? Purists will object! Such cautions tend to make Holdren a bit truculent.

“Shakespeare, as a living canon that will last long after we’re gone, can certainly hold his own, no matter what is done with him,” she says. Her approach seeks to avoid two pitfalls: not making the dramatic world clear, as though we should all know it already; and treating as necessary what might be only provisional. The important point is whether one sees Shakespeare as contemporary theater able to be transformed by deliberate re-invention, or as a classic text that must be adhered to.

Carpman calls their process “devising Shakespeare,” and Holdren talks of “an exquisite corpse” approach, like the surrealist method of group composition wherein each participant writes a line of a poem without knowing what precedes it or what will follow. In the end, what might seem a chaos of individual lines and voices becomes “a poem” by means of the magic of formal intention. Everyone intended the poem and the collective spirit guides the result. What might A Midsummer Night’s Dream be if our Will felt able to crib freely from himself throughout? And don’t we, as viewers of so many Shakespeare plays, cross-reference and confuse them all anyway?

In Midsummer, it’s not only Bottom—or perhaps not even Bottom—who will be “translated,” but Shakespeare’s text itself will undergo metamorphosis, with an emphasis on the “meta.” The Rough Magic Company are in pursuit of what Holdren calls “the magical heart of the text,” and that can’t be found without surgical intervention.

The Yale Summer Cabaret’s Rough Magic season opens next Thursday, June 4, with Midsummer, an original adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing through June 21.

Yale Summer Cabaret
Based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the plays of William Shakespeare

Adapted by Rachel Carpman and Sara Holdren
Directed by Sara Holdren

June 4-21, 2015

Perchance to Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play that rarely works its magic on me. It’s hard not to find the lovers insipid, the gods arbitrary and vain, and the mechanicals—Bottom, Quince, and the rest—grossly condescended to. Any production that disabuses me of these views is all to the good. The best way is to make the lovers actually funny, but that rarely happens. And as for the humor of the mechanicals-as-thespians, well . . . can it ever be too broad? The production by the Bristol Old Vic, in association with Handspring Puppet Company, brought to New Haven as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas has the distinction of creating a workshop atmosphere in which the mechanicals dominate. Before the play even begins, Titania (Saskia Portway) stands on stage hammering away.  The stage set (Fred Stacey, Andy Scrivens, Cliff Thorne) has great openness but also a dusty backstage feel that suits the production. We feel like we’re in the props room of a modern version of Athenian drama and that adds dimension to the play-within-a-play of Piramus and Thisbe that Quince (Colin Michael Carmichael) and company put on.

That aspect of the play—a farcical performance that nearly gets out of control—is quite inventive, with “Moonshine” (Jon Trenchard) perched on a ladder with a lit candle on his hat, and “Wall” (David Emmings) careening about the stage due to the top-heavy bricks affixed to his.

The intention of the Old Vic/Handspring production is to make puppetry intrinsic to the vision of the play. At times, this makes for striking effects—as when wood planks become musical instruments or a living forest or a walkway in space—and adds to liveliness when Quince starts handing out roles for the mechanicals’ play and Bottom (Miltos Yerolemou) disports with a large wooden beam, moving it about with a fluidity that is almost a special effect. And when he is “translated” into an ass, well…no spoilers from me, but it must be seen to be believed and, once seen, will always be remembered. Suffice to say he helms an amazing device that is both funny and grotesque.

Other puppetry moments produce more confusion than wonder. Why are the lovers puppets at times and at other times not? If that’s a too literal question, so be it. The program invites the audience to “suspend their disbelief”—something we do anyway when faced with a play featuring gods, Athenians, fairies, and nincompoops putting on a play, but when we also have to allow for puppets gripped like mini-me’s to this or that pining lover, it’s not so much a question of disbelief as of the meaning of the staging.

Such moments don’t intrude too much, and it’s easier to experience the enlivening aspect of puppetry when we see the fairies as an interesting collection of toys, found objects and moveable parts. Or when the gods disport giant heads and that fascinating big hand Oberon (David Ricardo Pearce) wields.

Among the lovers, Alex Felton as Lysander is the most amusing in his drastic change from adoring Hermia (Akiya Henry) to adoring Helena (Naomi Cranston), though Henry gets to bristle and make the most of her smaller stature (called for in the play) in lively physical comedy. Cranston’s Helena adopts the breathless delivery that is often the preferred manner of Brits doing the Bard. I would’ve appreciated more diction, less effusion in her speech to Hermia about their girlhood.

The best actor in the show is Yerolemou, who, besides hamming broadly as Bottom ("ham" and "bottom" being the key terms here), also gives greatly appreciated clarity to Egeus, Hermia’s fuming father. The disruption between Oberon and Titania (Saskia Portway) never felt particularly dramatic, but the interaction between the same two actors as Theseus and Hippolyta had much more feeling to recommend it.

The best aspect of the show are the visuals—set, lighting (Philip Gladwell) and the attention to movement (Andrew Dawson, Movement Director)—as well as the fascinating puppetry that could use a little tweaking to blend more seamlessly with Shakespeare’s somewhat hodgepodge play.


International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream A Bristol Old Vic production In associations with Handspring Puppet Company

Directed by Tom Morris Puppet Design, Fabrication, and Direction: Handspring Pupptet Company

Vicki Mortimer: Designer; Philip Gladwell: Lighting Designer; Dave Price: Composer; Christopher Shutt: Sound Designer; Andrew Dawson: Movement Director; Laurel Swift: Choreographer; James Bonas: Associate Director; Molly Einchcomb: Associate Designer; Katerina Hicken: Costume Supervisor; Joseph Wallace: Puppetry Associate

Performers; Saikat Ahamed, Colin Michael Carmichael, Naomi Cranston, David Emmings, Alex Felton, Fionn Gill, Akiya Henry, Kyle Lima, Saskia Portway, David Ricardo Pearce, Jon Trenchard, Miltos Yerolemou

June 15 & 18-22 at 8pm June 15, 16, 19, 22 & 23 at 2pm University Theatre Yale University