by William Shakespeare
Produced by Folger Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Let’s take a look at the record – or, more specifically, the program.
“I can’t say for sure when I first imagined setting A Midsummer Night’s Dream during the 1930s,” Joe Banno says in his amusing and cogent Director’s notes. “It might have been while watching an especially purgatorial production of the play, after having spent a week at a Busby Berkeley film festival, wishing that even an ounce of Berkeley’s loopy imagination had been lavished on the plain-jane staging in front of me.”
Well, Mr. Banno, if it was your intention to transform Dream into a Busby Berkeley screwball comedy, you and your superb cast have succeeded beyond expectation or debate. Of course, Erhard Rom’s simple, sufficient set and Kate Turner-Walker’s excellent costuming identify time and, if not place, class instantly. But Banno achieves his objective – the dream behind Dream – through the application of a thousand perfectly-realized details, from the way his actors skitter past each other and come to a stuttering halt to the way that they double-take; from the speeded-up way the women talk over each other to the way spirits overtake mortal bodies and make them dance and lip-synch songs from that frantic and melancholy decade.
Nice work, Mr. Banno.
John Huston once suggested that 99% of directing is casting. If so, Mr. Banno may have achieved 99% of his 99% with his inspired choice of the fabulous Kate Eastwood Norris as Puck. Puck is manic, but Norris paints the whole auditorium with joy; Puck is mischievous, but Norris makes us all co-conspirators in a neverending adventure of love. Norris is, indeed, so versatile that had Banno chosen to lodge Dream in a shop selling kitchen appliances instead of in the 1930s, Norris would have rendered Puck convincingly as a toaster oven, and afterward served us all grilled cheese sandwiches.
Casting Puck as a woman, however, created more advantages for Banno than simply giving him an opportunity to cast Norris. Puck as a man, or a boy, is Oberon’s minion, motivated principally by a desire to avoid the fairy king’s wrath. Norris’ Puck is in love with Oberon (John Lescault), who treats her with great tenderness and affection instead of the usual rough handling. It makes Puck richer and more powerful, and the play as well.
Banno’s other inspired nontraditional choice was to cast the wonderful Catherine Flye as Peterquince, a character whose name is usually split in half and inhabited by a man. The character’s tolerance of the antics of Nick Bottom (David Marks), an aspiring actor so self-absorbed that he seeks to play every role in Pyramus and Thisbe has always been a little hard to understand. With Flye in the role the answer is obvious: she loves him, as good women have loved flawed men since the beginning of time.
You doubtlessly are familiar with the plot of Dream, but for the benefit of your little brother, who is also reading this review, let me outline it. Hermia (Briel Banks) and Lysander (Marcus Kyd) are in love with each other, but Demetrius (Tim Getman) seeks the hand of Hermia even though he has the love of Helena (Stephanie Burden). Worse luck for Hermia, her father, Egeus Snout (Ralph Cosham), a butler and an actor, sides with Demetrius and under Athenian law (apparently the jurisdiction of the play) has the power to dispose of Hermia. Duke Theseus (Lescault again), distracted by his own upcoming nuptials to Hippolyta (Deborah Hazlett), gives Hermia a grim choice: marriage or the convent.
She and Lysander decide to take it on the lam, through the woods outside Athens. They are followed by Demetrius, who pursues Hermia, and Helena, who pursues Demetrius. Soon they run smack into the Fairy King Oberon, who is in a fierce child-custody battle with his Queen, Titania (Hazlett again). Fortunately, the fairies are invisible to the mortals, but not vice versa. Resolved to punish TItania for her assertiveness, Oberon directs Puck to obtain a rare enchantment, which causes the victim to love the next creature she sees. Put it on Titania, Oberon directs, and for good measure put it on Demetrius, that he might pity the love of Helena.
Puck does half her job brilliantly. She compels Titania to fall in love with Nick Bottom, who is practicing with his fellow actors in a nearby glade. To raise the stakes for Titania, Puck installs the head of an ass on Bottom. But her work on the non-fairy side is a little less successful; she mistakes Lysander for Demetrius. Later, she dumps some love dope on Demetrius, too, and soon the two men have abandoned Hermia for the pursuit of Helena – who takes this all as some sort of a hoax. Eventually, Oberon, moved by conscience (and, candidly, his victory in the custody matter), decrees a reversal, and it is done: Hermia is with Lysander, Helena is with Demetrius, and Bottom is back – sans asses’ head – with his troupe. Prince Theseus thereupon sanctions and thus legalizes everything, even permitting Peterquince, Bottom, and their company to stage their awful, awful, awful play.
There are some obvious advantages to placing the play in the 1930’s. It makes the play immensely sweet; it bathes the characters – some of Shakespeare’s most sensual – in a sort of innocence; and it gives us an opportunity to hear some gorgeous ‘30’s music, all of which was very apt. The downside, though, springs from the same sources: like a thirties screwball comedy, it is entirely devoid of danger or the possibility of loss; and such sex as there is is oblique, and usually ends with a smooch. In most productions, Oberon is a primitive satyr; here, the amiable Lescault plays him in a gorgeous pair of silk purple polka-dot lounging pajamas.
Dream, with or without danger, is full of delights, but this production does seem to cut back a bit on the play’s natural vitality. Dream was the first effort in art to depict fairies as anything but evil and threatening (indeed, Robin Goodfellow, Puck’s alter ego, was described in a book about thirteen years before Dream’s first production as a witch who caused great harm in London). It must have been startling for first audiences to see such creatures in so different a light, but in this production they seem as benign as cotton candy. But we are, after all, dealing with lifelong alliances and Holy Matrimony; the stakes are more than a song. We get a glimpse of this understated truth in the reaction of Burden’s Helena when she realizes that the love of Demetrius is not a hoax, but true and real. The shock, the tearful rapture, the surrender to joy – she tells the whole story of Midsummer Night’s Dream, in four seconds.
Work of this high quality is the norm in this extraordinary production. While nearly every performance merits special attention, it would be preposterous to leave this article without saying a word or two about Ralph Cosham. Ladies and gentlemen, here is deadpan humor worthy of Buster Keaton. Cosham, as Snug, playing a garden wall in that ghastly play enacted before the Duke, is a perfect portrait of a man who realizes the world has gone insane, and has resolved to wait it out. In the scene in which Bottom is reunited with his troupe, Banno has Cosham do something so out of character that your jaw will drop. Then you will laugh for the rest of the scene.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues Tuesdays through Sundays at Folger Theatre (201 East Capitol) until November 26. Evening shows Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7.30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 7. Matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2. No show Thursday, November 23. There will be a $15 pre-show discussion with Gail Paster, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, at 6.30 on November 1 and a discussion with the cast after the show on November 9. The matinee show on November 19 will be sign-interpreted. Friday and Saturday evening $42-$50; matinee tickets $38-$46; all others $32-$40. To order, call 202.544.7077 or go to http://www.folger.edu/.