OK, here’s the deal: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a summer staple. Almost any region that has more than one Shakespeare outlet will have at least one Midsummer to produce during any given year. There’s a reason for it: it’s popular. It’s light. It’s known.
And when we arrived last night at California Lutheran University for night one of the Kinsgmen Shakespeare Festival production, we saw the evidence. Nearly an hour and a half before the start of the play, the place was packed. I would say the crowd was almost twice as large as for Henry V a few weeks back. Remember, that was a very good production, well-reviewed with great word of mouth, a brilliant concept, and a matinee-handsome Henry. On the other hand, last night was opening night, with no raves to bring in a crowd. Midsummer is a popular play.
That, my friends, is a double-edged sword.
Sure, it’s popular. But it also means people have seen this play dozens of times before. The audience knows (or at least thinks they know) what to expect.
So how do you make the play your own? How do you make it fresh?
That’s a real dilemma. It can force directors and actors to do some things that aren’t necessary. I mean, I’ve seen a LOT of Midsummers, both on stage and on the screen. I’ve seen “standard” Midsummers, modernist Midsummers, intellectual Midsummers, ironic Midsummers, wacky Midsummers, even dark Midsummers.
So it’s a challenge, all right?
You must be thinking right about now: why is he telling me this?
Simple: I want to convey the crux of the problem… it’s not a tough play to do…but it’s a tough one to do well and to do with any level of freshness. All of this is preamble.
This is–simply put–a great Midsummer.
Director Brett Elliott has set his Midsummer in Raj period India during the British colonial rule. Given the text’s many “Indian” references, this makes total sense, and opens the play up to some interesting design choices in both costuming and set. Theseus, Egeus, Demetrius, and both female lovers are British upper class, the rude mechanicals a mixture of Brits and Indian working class, Lysander Indian upper class, and the fairy world from the South Asian myth world. This works seamlessly.
By putting the fairy world in another culture, we can break free of the wood nymphs with little wings that have come to plague many productions like so many gnats on a summer night. Here, we get lithe fairies and downright scary goblins led by a horned Oberon. More on Puck in a moment, but suffice to say the production brings out trapdoors for some surprising entrances…magical.
The music by Christopher Hoag and set design by Erik Diaz both add to the exotic flavor, and having the set give us the impression of a temple that is being reclaimed by the nature around it, makes the fairy world that much more believable.
In many productions, the male lovers are stiffs, interchangeable, so much so that I still have problems remembering which is which (there’s no easy mnemonic device as there is for the women: Helena, tall and thin [like the letter L]; Hermia shorter [like the rolling hills conjured by a M]). That’s not the case here, though, with an Indian Lysander. This adds just a touch of unspoken racism in Egeus’ choice of Demetrius for Hermia, and makes the armed Demetrius all the more colonial.
There’s really not a sub-par performance in the production, but there are two standouts. Marc Silver takes the already showy role of Bottom and pushes it to its extreme. His death as Pyramus is a hilariously drawn-out affair, incorporating not just suicide by blade, but also by hanging, choking, and banana peel (I kid you not). It’s interesting that the largest ass-head I’ve ever seen in a production actually humanizes his character (it seems to calm down Bottom, and its cuddly appearance isn’t as grotesque as many productions create).
And then there’s Puck. Elliott doesn’t go the usual route with a boyish cutesy Robin. Here, he gives us a middle-aged, round bald troublemaker. Jason Rennie creates (if you’ll excuse the pun) a real Puck-up. It’s an inspired choice, and pays off from his first appearance (through one of those aforementioned traps) through his last (a fun final reveal).
For the life of me, I can’t think of more fun I’ve had at a Midsummer (especially with its Bollywood-esque Bergomask), and under the stars and (beginning tomorrow night) a waning moon, it doesn’t get any better than this. The production runs through the end of the month, but hit this early, as I’m thinking the large crowds will only grow as word gets out.