A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Giving the Lovers Their Due
Millbrook Playhouse, Mill Hall, Pa.
Saturday, July 20, 2013, Third row center in box theater
Directed by Teresa K. Pond
Theater director Ethan McSweeny commented as he was about to helm a production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., that the play's challenge is presenting all three plot strands and their distinct character types in equal strength. I concur—only once in 20 outings have I seen a production that succeeded with consistent oomph from the fairies, the rude mechanicals, and the Athenian lords.
The challenge originates with Shakespeare's text and the disparate qualities of the three character groups. The mechanicals are slapstick funny with their amateur production of Pyramus and Thisbe, and Bottom is one of Shakespeare's great creations. The fairies are like nothing else Shakespeare wrote in either poetry or presentation, and Puck is one of Shakespeare's most singular creations. The lovers, on the other hand, seem to be merely serviceable. Their behavior is somewhat sappy whether they are under a spell or not, and their plotline strains credulity even before fairy magic takes over. It's the lovers en total that have dragged down many productions I've seen of Dream, despite their great brawl at the center of the play.
However, when Producing Artistic Director Teresa K. Pond decided to mount A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Millbrook Playhouse's 50th Anniversary Season—the first pure Shakespeare production at the Mill Hall, Pa., theater in some four decades—she decided to make the lovers the play's centerpiece characters. She's onto something. The lovers, after all, provide the main plot, a plotline that could serve as a sitcom pilot today. The characters, meanwhile, are reality TV staples: the uptight queen bee beauty, the doting romantic, the self-centered cad, and the passive-aggressive weeper. Though the four actors playing them—respectively, Katrina Michaels as Hermia, Josh Houghton as Lysander, Jonathan Minton (my son) as Demetrius, and Madeline Wise as Helena—reveal their characters to be apropos to our times, Pond sets the action in England circa 1911 (Downton Abbey seems to be this year's setting du jour for Shakespeare plays). Costume designer Roejendra Adams dresses the guys in white dinner jackets and the gals in cream afternoon dresses, the mechanicals as middle-class laborers, and the fairies in fantastical, multicolored, name-suited outfits (for example, Cobweb is covered in white strands of fabric).
The fairies do a lot of prancing about, with Oberon (Christopher Scheer, doubling as Theseus) and Titania (Mary Malaney, doubling as Hippolyta) galloping across the multilevel set (designed by Mark DeLancey as a mossy forest floor) in hyper-agitation, and a leaf-covered Puck (Ariel Marcus, doubling as Philostrate) literally popping out from various locations on the set. The mechanicals bumble about with nervous energy and Bottom (Cory Lawson) displays a humorously pompous aspect from the moment he is cast as Pyramus to his presentation of Pyramus' death.
However, it is the lovers who infuse the production with rapturous energy and kick the comedy quotient up to rarified heights when they enter the Athenian woods. Though they are speaking some of the most formally composed lines in all of Shakespeare—not only exclusively iambic pentameter but full of rhyming couplets, too—the foursome deliver them with a natural ease while engaging in ridiculous antics, such as Helena fending off the suddenly-doting Demetrius with her high-heeled boot, and Demetrius responding by paying passionate attention to that boot.
Two days before we took in this production, we saw Synetic Theater's silent version of A Midsummer Night's Dream featuring one of the best Helenas I've ever seen in Emily Whitworth, though she delivers her whole portrayal through mime, movement, and dance. In this production, Wise does all of that, too, plus speaks the lines with skilled confidence, resulting in a portrayal that ascends beyond great Helenas to the realm of benchmark Shakespearean performances. Much of her accomplishment is in her trusting the text and playing to it rather than beyond it, and in her lines she finds a woman driven by an undercurrent of long-held jealousy of her best friend and a low self-esteem, using self-deprecation as a defense mechanism. "I am your spaniel…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," is a cringe-worthy line, but not only does Wise deliver it feelingly, she later will lie on the ground and hold up her paws as if she were a begging dog. When Demetrius suddenly becomes infatuated with her, rather than embracing it, Wise's Helena immediately questions it, even to the point of resistance: She becomes certain that everyone is playing a joke on her. When Helena protests a desire that the others "Let me go. You see how simple and how fond I am," Hermia responds with the obvious: "Why, get you gone. Who is't that hinders you?" "A foolish heart that I leave here behind," Helena replies, meaning Demetrius (though Hermia thinks she means Lysander, and the brawling resumes), but Wise speaks this line as if she is referring to her own friendless heart, too.
Another boon to Wise's performance is the chemistry she shares with Minton as Demetrius. Their interplay, both physically and verbally, is comically taut. Minton effectively indulges in a few extra-Shakespearean interjections ("Oh God, no" he says when Helena starts in on one of her avowals of love), and he finds in Demetrius a man of action, but not so much words. He may be spellbound when he's suddenly courting Helena, but he nevertheless struggles mightily to rhyme "divine" with "eyne."
Minton's most insightful discovery is Shakespeare's use of the phrase "fair Helena." Hermia is the first to hail "fair Helena," and this leads to Helena's own debate on whether or not she is really fair: "That 'fair' again unsay." Demetrius, when he remonstrates with Helena as she follows him into the woods, demands of her, "Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?" Notably, he doesn't speak her fair, not even when he's feverishly courting Helena after he's been given the love potion. Not until he awakes in the morning does the word come back into play, and it's in the first line he speaks: "My lord," he tells Theseus, "fair Helen told me of their stealth." Minton pauses a second and gazes across the stage before saying fair here. He may still be under the potion's spell, but in fact he has come to his senses (by Helena's account, Demetrius doted on her "ere [he] looked on Hermia's eyne," so the fairy potion could be merely a counter spell to the lust he suddenly had for Hermia). As he continues his account for Theseus, Minton draws nearer to Helena and takes her hand. "Like in sickness did I loathe this food," he says; "But as in health come to my natural taste, now I do wish it, love it, long for it, and will for evermore be true to it." Minton's Demetrius speaks this with such truthfulness that Wise's Helena must believe it, and in astonishment accepts his loving kiss. It is the most purely romantic moment I ever recall seeing in a Dream.
Meanwhile, Lysander and Hermia are engaging in troubling looks, silently questioning each other about what has transpired between them. It's an ironic reading, in that we sense Helena and Demetrius will continue as a happy couple while the seeds of mistrust may haunt the relationship of Lysander and Hermia.
This is the production's climactic moment; but we still have the presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe yet to come. The mechanicals keep the humor going, with especially ridiculous performances from Bottom and Francis Flute (Johnny Haussener) in the title roles. Wall with a flower pot on his head (Richard Guido as Tom Snout) is a particularly fun touch, too. Much of the interjections from the Athenian lords have been cut, maintaining a positive spirit through this scene.
Other cuts in the script, however, while getting the action down to roughly two hours, are not so conducive to the production's quality. Lawson is a fine Bottom, and using a cane due to an injury suffered onstage during previews, he turns the medical necessity into a suitable prop for Bottom's upperclass-worthy self view. Unfortunately, we don't see this Bottom display his talent in playing both lover and tyrant, and we don't see his auditioning for the part of Thisbe, as all of these lines have been cut. Malaney demonstrates her acting skills in presenting a reserved Hippolyta but a lusty Titania, wielding intelligent passion whether she is castigating Oberon or crushing on the ass-head-wearing Bottom. However, much of Titania's and Hippolyta's lines have been cut, not only removing some key plot points but also depriving us of seeing more of Malaney's skills.
At least we get the lovers in full; and yet, we yearn for more from them, too, because Pond and her four actors have proven that they are great Shakespearean creations, too.
August 2, 2103
Comment: e-mail email@example.com