Direct And To The Point: Midsummer Night’s Dream

This post is inspired by the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Lear deBessonet that’s currently playing at The Delacorte. Like any of any of Shakespeare’s works it has elements that are challenging to pull together. And some of the most successful moments occur where the expression of the text has been hyper personalized. My specific reflections are as follows:

Midsummer Nights Dream

Theseus and Hippolyta
– Every time I see this show, I have the same reaction to these characters, which is “why are these people here?!” To a certain extent, they seem like an odd layer of middle management – presiding over the lovers and mechanicals but not quite as powerful as the Fairy lords. The fact that their lines open and very nearly close the play makes them feel structurally important. But from a storytelling perspective, there is nothing of interest for the audience to track. As such, I wonder if you could start the play with Egeus’ grievance regarding Hermia and shift the Theseus/Hippolyta lines about their upcoming nuptials to later in the scene. It might not be possible, but if you could make that shift, it would introduce to them as serving a function in the story rather than being characters to pay attention to. I saw a bit of commentary about how Hippolyta standing up to Theseus would have been unusual for the time. I would love to see more made of this, especially given that Theseus offers Hermia the option of becoming a nun (rather than being put to death for not marrying her father’s choice of suitor). Presenting this dynamic is also interesting to me given that Theseus and Hippolyta are of higher social stature than the Lovers, meaning their behavior presumably becomes the standard to some extent.

The Lovers
– I absolutely loved what Annaleigh Ashford did with her interpretation of Helena. It’s easy for Helena to come off as desperate and clingy. But that comes from a place of weakness and isn’t terribly likable. Additionally, I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense in the context of her actions. She actions strike me as plucky not desperate. In this production, Helena was portrayed as being determined and incredibly turned-on, and it was fantastic. What made this even better was that her determination then had to escalate to absurd levels, allowing for authentic, need-based comedy. I would have loved to see the other three lovers rise to this level of need. Part of the comedy to be had with regard to the Lovers is in watching the fluctuations in absurdity and the attempts to temper that absurdity. But you only get that payoff if their absurdities are solidly based in need AND their absurdities reach extreme proportions.
– That being said, you have to be careful with how that absurdity is expressed for the gents. You want to avoid the absurdity tipping over into something that might be read as dangerous. Danger is not funny. Perhaps their determination to win Helena could be channeled towards trying to look sexier than each other, or out dance each other or something like that. The important thing is to steer clear of anything that relies on force. When it finally escalates to them fighting with each other, I would try to make their battle as ridiculous as possible. Maybe one of them tries to rip up a whole tree (but can’t do it), then a whole tree limb (but still can’t do it) and finally goes to battle with a tiny twig (or droopy flower). While the other one tries to use his shoe as a weapon. Something that clearly highlights that they’ve completely lost their minds and aren’t even thinking coherently enough to do any harm. After all, when it comes to the gentlemen, their absurdity is result of a faire prank. An accident prank, but a prank nonetheless. The resulting action should be tonally on par with Titania falling in love with an ass.

The Mechanicals
– Strangely, with the Mechanicals, I feel like the challenge is try to find a unique presentation of these characters for your production. Because they are so well written, as long as the actors commit to their respective personalities and needs it’s rare for these guys to fall flat. So, while I usually enjoy these characters, I’m rarely surprised by anything in their interpretation. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but that would be my question during the design, casting and rehearsal process – to see if something different could be found in these characters and the journey they take (without taking anything away from what makes them wonderful).
An exercise I find helpful with regard to thinking in a new direction is to take the essence of what you’re looking at and consider where else in life you encounter that same essence. With regard to the Mechanicals, two qualities came immediately to mind. The first is that they are completely earnest. The second is that they are largely incompetent. With regard to the earnestness, other places where I have encountered that quality include children and people who are learning English as a second language. These are populations where the desire to understand and be clearly understood is of the utmost importance. If they can work in a joke, that is a huge accomplishment. But typically, the ability to be duplicitous or evasive is beyond them. With regard to the incompetence, the two examples that come to mind include the current administration down in Washington and the MTA. (Sorry MTA, but we both know things haven’t been great for you recently.) Neither of those options seem like they would be a good idea to pursue. They feel like things that could quickly devolve into bashing organizations that are not functioning optimally. And frankly, I don’t know that going in the direction of children or foreign speakers would be any better. But all four of those concepts are different from each other and are not the way the Mechanicals are typically conceived of. And while none seem like the answer, they might help generate an idea that would be terrific.
– Another thing I would mention about the Mechanicals is that it is tremendously important to keep the pace up throughout their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. The ideal would be to keep it as funny as possible but also as tight as possible. Given that it takes place after virtually all of the other plot lines have been resolved makes it the “11 o’clock number” – something to thrill the audience and be done. Which is difficult to achieve, especially given all the asides by Theseus, Hippolyta and the Lovers. I would try to trim these down as much as possible and for the remaining interjections, make sure that there was always some business simultaneously going on with Pyramus and Thisbe – set change, costume change, dance number, something – as way to try to maintain momentum.

The Fairies
– One thing this production did that I particularly enjoyed was to have all of the Faires be older actors. As in, people who could have believably played grandparents. I appreciated this for several reasons. As a society, we tend to look through our senior citizens (which in this play, intersected well with the Faires being invisible to the humans). It also made sense to me that these characters were spirits of the earth who are responsible for the changing of the seasons and have been around for thousands of years. If they’ve been around for thousands of years, of course they’re old. And of course they might be bored and find it fun to toy with the human. Plus there’s something incredibly fun about a mischievous old person. So taking this approach to the casting made a lot of symbolic sense to me, but from a purely logistical standpoint, it made a clear visual distinction between the Faires and everyone else. Often I feel like productions try to establish this visual distinction purely with costuming. A sort of “that person is dressed in a glittery unitard, so I guess they must be of another world” kind of thing, which annoys me to no end. Dealing with “magical beings” is always challenging on stage. But I find that it is most effective when 1) you’ve defined what the rules are for these magical beings, 2) don’t try to do what you can’t (or don’t have the budget for), and 3) trust that your audience will suspend their disbelief for you if you let them. For this play, the degree to which the Faires influence the humans is pretty clearly laid out in the script. The only thing that really needs to be created for the audience’s benefit is that they exist in a different world. And by going in this direction with regard to casting, this production created that effect almost effortlessly.
– On the subject of age, I also appreciated that this production had the child who Titania and Oberon are fighting over present on stage. Because it’s only talked about in the script (and because it can be hard to cast a young child) many productions do not have this character appear. Which I totally understand. But it was really satisfying to have their bone of contention be made manifest.
– With regard Titania and Oberon, I don’t feel like they should be waging all out war over the boy. They are certainly squabbling over him, but they have made up by the end of the play, despite the fact that “ownership” of the boy has changed hands. To me this only makes sense if they are having a Cliff and Clair Huxtable type of disagreement. Meaning they are sincere about their differing positions and are going to be very active in trying to get their point across to the other party, but at no point do we as the audience ever think that they don’t love each other or that they will not find a way to resolve this dispute. This production (and most other productions that I’ve seen) didn’t go so far as to make it seem like Titania and Oberon were at war, but it also didn’t make it seem like this was a small matter in the scope of their relationship. I think the distinction that I’m looking for here is that it be established when we initially meet these characters that they do truly love each other and this disagreement is not going to be the end of everything. This is difficult given their initial lines to each other, but if the lines were played as teasing (coming from a place where both of them feel secure within the relationship) rather than launching an offensive (where the underlying current is “I’m ready to end this thing right now”) it might be possible. And it would make their eventual reunion make more sense to me. If that can be established, it also makes sense to me that Oberon finally calls for Puck to reverse the enchantment on Titania, because the prank has gone too far. If it’s not a solid and loving relationship to start with then I don’t know why Titania would amiably return to Oberon immediately after he took the child AND reveals to her that he made her fall in love with an ass.

Dreaming…while onstage
– The play seems to have an extremely high rate of people falling asleep on stage. Which is always kind of hard to make seem believable. I find the longer the window is that you can give actors to be falling asleep the easier it is to sell. I would want to look at the earliest point in the scene where I could have characters start to get drowsy and/or to see if there are moments where they can overhear or be drifting off during the following scene.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Post them below. The more, the merrier.