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A Midsummer Night's Dream

It Shall Be Called 'Posner's Dream'

Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, January 31, 2016, G-5&7 (back left stalls)
Directed by Aaron Posner

Puck, hands on hips, stands on a platform laughing at Bottom with donkey ears, buck teeth strapped around her cheeks and hooves for hands, wearing a white sweater vest over white shirt with black pans. A bush of vines and fairy lights is in the background, and a ladder to the right
Puck (Erin Weaver) enjoys her handiwork, the transformation of Bottom (Holly Twyford) into an ass, in the Aaron Posner-directed production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. Photo by Teresa Wood, Folger Library.

Truth in advertising is often a challenge for the Folger Theatre. For example, top billing on its just-opened production of A Midsummer Night's Dream goes to William Shakespeare but, really, it's the second name on the playbill that matters most: Aaron Posner. Indeed, the true fault in the advertising is listing Posner only as the production's director. Nowhere can I find the word adaptor on the playbill or in the program though this is not really Shakespeare's Dream but Posner's tinkering on Shakespeare's Dream—well, tinkering is not the right predicate: re-engineering is more accurate.

That's not altogether a bad thing. Posner is a visionary theatrical talent in his own right, and though he always plays fast and loose with Shakespeare's scripts (and the plots, too), his productions usually are in themselves wonderful pieces of theater, including this romping, comical, and magical production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Indeed, the production I'm most anticipating in 2016 is District Merchants, Posner's makeover of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice at the Folger this summer.

Nevertheless, when you watch a Posner-directed Shakespeare play, you end up charting the director's tropes more than you do the Bard's recurring motifs.

  • Posner takes a theatrical device Shakespeare used successfully somewhere else and replicates it where Shakespeare never intended. For example, Posner set his cleverly conceived 2011 Folger production of A Comedy of Errors in the framework of an amateur masked theater company, but gave as a key reason for doing so (other than forgoing the need to cast two pairs of look-alike actors) the fact that Shakespeare used a similar device in The Taming of the Shrew—never mind that the two plays are totally different except for their author. Similarly, if Shakespeare has Puck speaking an epilogue in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Posner decides he might as well have the fairy do a prologue, too. Before the house lights go dark, Puck, here a female fairy played by Erin Weaver with turquoise-streaked blonde hair and wearing earth-tone culottes and short vest that shows off her ripped body (this is an athletic fairy), moves through the house sniffing up and touching members of the audience. She even tries on Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks's pair of glasses. "Mortals, welcome all and all," she says before delivering a verse speech presumably of Posner's composition comparing theater and dreams. This establishes a standard for this play in which Posner juggles Shakespeare's script and inserts lines that sound Shakespearean but are not of this play. Puck's prologue does serve a hugely useful purpose: to remind us of proper mobile device etiquette. As Weaver magically builds an aural landscape, the recording of a cell phone ringing slices through the theater (sound designer Sarah Pickett, who does standout work throughout this production, directs the electronic beeping so that it seems to originate from somewhere a couple of rows in front of and over from us, creating the illusion of being a patron's phone). Puck responds with appropriate threats: "If your device disturb this place, I'll tear your lips around your face."

  • Posner applies a bit of cinematic-era editing sensibilities to Shakespeare's order of scenes. Posner often swaps scenes or runs them simultaneously, and in this Dream he combines the Rude Mechanicals' rehearsal in the woods—and the transformation of Bottom into an ass (Act III, Scene 1)—with Puck's telling Oberon of the event (Act III, Scene 2). Sitting with Oberon (Eric Hissom) on an upper platform, Puck provides narration of the events that are also played out below, complete with slow motion episodes and a gut-bustingly funny rewind and replay. The best payoff comes when Puck recounts how, after she transformed Bottom, "in that moment, so it came to pass, Titania waked and straightway loved an ass," whereupon Titania (Caroline Stefanie Clay) enters sing-saying "What angel wakes me from my flow'ry bed?"

  • Posner perpetuates a male fantasy of women offering unconditional yet unrequited love for a guy whose devotion is elsewhere. In his western-set Taming of the Shrew at the Folger in 2012 (in which, by the way, he eschewed Shakespeare's play-within-a-play framework—I'm just saying), Posner cast Holly Twyford to play the servant Tranio as a woman who, while pining for her master Lucentio, helps him attain the woman of his dreams. Weaver as Puck is put in the same state, trying to seduce Oberon though he holds steadfastly true to Titania. Because Shakespeare himself doesn't explore this fetish in his plays, Posner does so only when he turns traditionally male roles into female roles, changing the character dynamics enough to give him license to demean the great actresses he casts in those parts. I grant that Hissom's Oberon is worth the crush—his is a virile fairy king, both commanding and generous with a wicked sense of humor (doubling as Theseus, Hissom is the anti-Oberon, bringing all his self-effacing comic talent to the part of a duke not really cut out for this whole ruling a city state business). However, Shakespeare's script so undermines Posner's intent that he must alter the text. Though Oberon and Titania are warring over a changeling boy early in the play, Posner cuts the follow-up mention of the boy, which comes when Oberon describes how his love potion has hoodwinked Titania into giving up the boy. That Oberon doesn't jibe with Posner's need for Oberon to be faithful to Titania instead of giving in to an enticing Puck's come-ons, even though Oberon has a reported history of dalliance.

  • When there is magic in the play, Posner uses magic in the playing. Posner has combined with the magician Teller for a landmark Macbeth on this stage and a production of The Tempest that has played in several theaters around the country (but I have not seen). In this Dream, Posner comes up with the tricks himself. A little Tinker-Bell-type light plays the wandering spirit who converses with Puck, and sound effects and lights replace the need to cast actors for Titania's train. The petals of the flowers creating the magic potion float in air and turn into a syringe, an eyedropper, and dust in the wind.

  • Posner turns on its head something that has worked perfectly well for 400 years. Posner got our collective theater-loving hearts beating when he cast the incomparable Twyford as Bottom. In addition to making this Bottom a woman, Posner turned the Rude Mechanicals into the Athens High School theatrical club, with the all-girl members wearing private school uniforms. Peter Quince (Richard Ruiz) is the drama teacher and Bottom is—I cannot tell; another teacher, perhaps. So far, so OK, as the humor derives from Bottom being so full of herself (Twyford generates a nonstop laugh track in her first two scenes), the school girls instilling hip-hop elements into the play of Pyramus and Thisbe, and Snug (Megan Graves) barely reaching a half-decibel of volume when she speaks—even when she shouts (or roars as Lion). The running joke of Snug's near-silent vocals works to the end of the play, especially when she gives her speech as Lion in the performance before Theseus, Hippolyta, and the lovers, who all strain to hear her. The hip-hop gag kind of peters out, though, and the presentation of Bottom, unfortunately, derails, starting with her transformation into the ass. This goes beyond a pair of donkey ears and a set of protruding teeth to include horseshoed hooves on her hands and feet and Twyford heehawing all her lines. The costuming is cool, but this manner of speaking Bottom's lines is more grating than great. When it comes to Bottom's portrayal of Pyramus, Twyford apparently proves too good an actress to be a bad actor, and so her Pyramus is played seriously—so, too, is Thisbe after Francis Flute (Dani Stoller, whose socially challenged Flute has a crush on Bottom) watches Bottom's performance. All this would be fine, except that Shakespeare gave these characters comically awful lines. Furthermore, Ruiz's Quince has hilariously set us up with an overwrought, overacted prologue, including a version of Pyramus's death that ranks among the best I've seen. The actual presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe is not nearly as satisfying.

  • Posner bails in the latter stages of the play. Shakespeare's fifth acts reveal Posner's short attention span as the director hurries the proceedings, tossing asunder Shakespeare's script. Bottom and company actually deliver her "Bottom's Dream" in song (identified as the Bergomask dance that the Rude Mechanicals sing after their play), and this segues into a big-production, song-and-dance finale about how everybody should embrace their dreams. Instead of a fairy blessing, we get a Disney Channel lesson on how it's OK to act on our feelings. At least the music (by Andre Pluess) is good and the cast expertly nail Erika Chong Shuch's fun choreography.

Another thing you can generally count on with a Posner-directed production is that he will cast great talent and get the best out of them. That is especially noticeable in the lovers, as it takes great character focus and untethered energy (and, admittedly, some line cutting) to bring their scenes up to the comic potency Shakespeare bestows upon the fairies and Rude Mechanicals. Adam Wesley Brown, who made his Folger debut last year as Guildenstern in the Posner-directed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, is a whimsically funny Lysander. He is sweetly poetic to Hermia, playing a ukulele as he sings her a lullaby; and he is, well, sweetly mean to Hermia when he's out of love with her and insulting her diminutive stature. Desmond Bing's Demetrius has a soldier's bearing (he even wears a formal uniform matching that of Theseus in the last scene) and not a hint of callousness about him in his treatment of Helena. A measure of how threatening he comes off when he warns her of the evil he could do to her in the woods is that Kim Wong's Helena reacts by flinging off her coat to reveal a short, sexy red dress and high heels and then flinging herself onto Demetrius with such a faceplant kiss it sucks the breath out of him. Betsy Mugavero is an adorable Hermia, so thrilled with being in love she's just an ever-moving ball of energy. It is because of her all-encompassing dotage on Lysander that she has so much trouble fathoming that he no longer loves her, let alone why. In a bit part, Elliott Bales makes a huge impression as Egeus, Hermia's father, who could be a Mafia hitman if he had more heart. Posner makes the absolutely right decision to make Egeus unrelenting in his ire, and it is to stop potential violence that Hissom's Theseus angrily orders Egeus, along with Demetrius, to accompany him at the end of the play's first scene, allowing Lysander and Hermia the space alone.

Posner is also adept at making the most of the Folger's play space, especially in the way he encompasses the audience, with characters entering and exiting through the central aisle, the lords watching Pyramus and Thisbe on benches in that aisle, Hermia chasing Helena through the audience, and Puck ever inspecting us mere mortals. Posner does make one mistake in his blocking, though. Paige Hathaway's scene design uses huge throw pillows as the Athenian woods, and some of the action—including love potions being put on and removed and Titania winding Bottom in her arms—take place on the floor stage left, where those of us in row G of the stalls can't see what's happening due to the forest of heads between us and the stage. Best seats in the house for this production are up in the balcony.

At the front center is Helena in red patterned miniskirt and high heels, at the back left is Hermia climbing down a ladder in brown patterned smock-type shirt and corduroys, in the background are Demetrius in cargo pants, boots, purple jacket and yellow t-shirt, and Lysander in purple leather pants, boots, checkered shirt, denim jacket and fodora. The blue stage has large throw pillows around and fairy lights.
Helena (Kim Wong) complains about her treatment at the hands of Hermia (Betsy Mugavero, climbing down the ladder) and the men who inexplicably dote on her, Demetrius (Desmond Bing in back) and Lysander (Adam Wesley Brown) in Folger's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Teresa Wood, Folger Library

Devon Painter's costumes are character driven—or vice versa. Lysander and Hermia wear a rural, earth-mother aesthete, even at the wedding, while Demetrius and Helena are more elegantly dressed in uniform and ball gown (but Wong's Helena first appears in baggy grunge jeans singing Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know"). Hippolyta is, fittingly, outfitted like an African queen, and she bears herself as one in all her scenes with Theseus.

While this Dream is not pure Shakespeare, it is purely Posner. I always find it ironic to read in his program notes how much Shakespeare inspires him, yet that inspiration apparently leads him to think he can do better, and so he ends up trouncing all over the Bard's exquisite craftsmanship. "We have approached this production with all the honesty, complexity, and wonder we can muster," he writes in his notes for this play, to which I react with, respectively, not really, of your own doing, and absolutely.

Nevertheless, he maintains A Midsummer Night's Dream as a comedy, and not only represses the play's dark undertone but turns the work's dream motif—Theseus's "antic fables" and "fairy toys"—into a life lesson of inspiration: Hippolyta's "fancy's images" that grow "to something of great constancy…strange and admirable." The last sentence in Posner's program note comprises one word: "Enjoy!"

And that we do.

Eric Minton
February 2, 2016

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