A Midsummer Night, Full of Hits and Misses

During the final scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play is produced for the Duke and his new bride. It is described as “a brief, tedious play,” and there is a conversation about how something can be both short and long at the same time. Interestingly, this production of Midsummers could be described similarly. It could easily be considered both brilliant and mundane at the same time.

The New World Shakespeare Company (NWSC) takes classic pieces and produces them in a completely modern, cutting edge way. They seek out diverse options, often altering traditional casting in favor of  same-gender relationships, which I find slightly ironic considering the way Shakespeare’s plays were originally produced – with cross dressing men in all the female roles. One of the remarkable things about Shakespeare’s writings is their ability to be placed in any context and still be relevant.

In this instance, the role of Helena becomes Helenus, and is played by Jeff Stinson. This changes the dynamic of the four lovers, usually two women and two men who experience a night of mixed up affections and misplaced love. There was an interesting effect brought about by this change.  In my mind there has always been a question about why Demetrius, Helena’s love, turns his back on her in the first place. In the end he returns to Helena, but only with the help of the faeries and their magical potions. This production could have been titled “A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Demetrius Comes Out.” It seemed to me that Demetrius (played by Eric Leckman) was attempting to deny his same-gender attraction and that is why he spurns Helenus. It actually offers an explanation for what I have always considered to be a hole in Shakespeare’s plot. At the same time, it was also a distraction, one that I didn’t necessarily enjoy. I missed a lot of the incredible language while I was paying attention to how things had to be altered to accommodate the new relationships.

As for the other two lovers, I couldn’t understand a single thing Lysander (Christopher-Alan Pedersen) said. Enunciation was garbled. I am familiar enough with the script to know what he was supposed to be saying, so I could still follow the story, but others may not be so fortunate. Hermia (Kerry Thomas) was spot on with her memorization and coordinating actions, but didn’t appear to actually be listening to the other actors, or even to herself. Rather, it seemed she was merely waiting for her cue so she could recite what she had memorized. At one point, she even appeared to be staring at the wall behind the actor she was supposed to be conversing with, or gazing at his shirt. This is a common problem with Shakespeare, and one that is usually remedied with more experience and a better understanding of the language.

The remaining main cast was fairly successful. Egeus, Hermia’s father (Larry Webb), Theseus, the Duke (Thomas Fowler), and Hyppolyta, the Amazon Queen and bride of Theseus (Melissa Cecala) seemed slightly nervous but were quite good. Because these roles have little stage time, they are often doubled with another part or played by less experienced actors. These actors looked great and reacted to each other well. I especially appreciated Hyppolyta’s fleshed out character and the underlying tension between her and Theseus, an often overlooked thread in the script.

Oberon (Sean Keene) and Titania (Camilla Laib) were wonderful. They are the mythical counterparts of Theseus and Hyppolyta, and rulers of the fairy kingdom.  They looked good, they interpreted lines well, interacted and reacted with everyone around them in a completely natural way. Accompanying them is the Changeling Boy, the child of one of Titania’s late “ladies-in-waiting” of sorts. Titania has “adopted” the boy, and he is now at the center of the argument betwixt her and Oberon. NWSC put a whole different twist on the portrayal of this boy (I won’t spoil it for you) and it worked. The Boy (William Durst) has no lines, but spoke in volumes. He managed to create a strange ethereal effect around him that was quite mesmerizing.

Also surrounding Oberon and Titania are the faeries. This production portrays them as ravers, with platform heels, fishnet stockings, hot-pants and miniskirts. I loved the idea of the faeries as ravers. It should have worked, but it didn’t. They were clunky, uncomfortable, and distracting. Part of the problem could have been the stage and lighting- not bad design, just a lack of options in the space. During the climactic scene between the lovers, where the misunderstandings and arguments reach their gloriously written peaks, the ravers were partying in the background. Sometimes the humans would interact with them, as if they were aware of their presence, but showed no wonderment at being surrounded by faeries. Other times they acted as if they had no idea the faeries were there. It was confusing. And it took all the attention away from one of my favorite scenes. There was far more notice given to bizarre costumes and dancing than to the script.

There was also the unexplainable removal of the lovers clothing. I’ve seen many productions that use this device, though there is no evidence that Shakespeare intended it. Since the writing gives no reason for it, it’s necessary for the direction to give cause for the action. This production failed to do that.  It seemed to be done merely for shock value, or an attempt at humor, which worked once or twice, then got old and eventually just turned into a strange “what is going on?” moment.

Saving the best for last, we have Puck, wonderfully played by Kaltin Kirby. He was spot on, easily understood, mischievous, and quick. We also have Nick Bottom, played by an actor known only as DRU. Bottom is an actor with a group of “rustics,” tradesmen and wanna-be actors who prepare a play for the Duke. They rehearse in the woods and get entangled in the faeries mischief. Nick Bottom is, in my opinion, one of Shakespeare’s most delightful characters, and DRU does him justice. His performance was nothing short of brilliant. His comrades were also amusing and successfully gave us the comedy for which they were written.

As stated earlier, there are many brilliant moments in this production. The director (Blayne Wiley) obviously has a good understanding of Shakespeare and every character, at some point during the play, gave us a magical moment. In the scene where the faeries sing Titania to sleep, the decision to pair Shakespeare’s  words with Annie Lennox’s music was genius. And when the DJ comes out from behind his sound board to announce the play, he steals the scene. There were consistently sideways glances, eye-rolls, shrugs, double-takes, pauses and the like that were wonderfully directed. So much so, that it’s not too difficult to look past the weaknesses and enjoy an overall well produced show.

If you like Shakespeare, and are not too sensitive to same-gender relationships or a grittier interpretation of Shakespeare’s words, I would recommend this production.

New World Shakespeare Company’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ plays August 1st – 11th at The Leonardo, Third Floor Auditorium, 209 East 500 South, in Salt Lake City. Tickets price includes a discount voucher for admission to the Museum, and a portion of the proceeds benefit Utah’s Homeless Youth. Call 801-719-7998, or www.artix.org.

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