Rarely does a reviewer get to indulge in a second viewing of a production. In this case, director Tom Morris’ splendid production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is well worth multiple viewings. The Kennedy Center has made a tremendous contribution to D.C. audiences by bringing this production to its World Stages Festival after it was performed last spring at Spoleto Festival.
This is Shakespeare’s most popular play and one that invites certain directors to ply their highest skills in its reinvention. Several have stamped their own indelible mark on the play, directing seminal productions that have achieved a kind of mythic status. Peter Brook rocked audiences in the early seventies with a circus-like Dream performed in a two-story white box of a set. Polish director Jerzy Grotowski used octogenarian creatures to create a darkly realized Dream where figures seemed to rise out of some antediluvian muck. Peter Sellars attempted his own Dream using only four actors to perform the entire play and set the work as explorations of sexual fantasy in a double bed.
Tom Morris joins this esteemed crew with his own Dream for the ages in the collaboration with South Africa’s esteemed Handspring Puppet Company. You will remember this was the creative team, including master puppeteers and designers Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, that brought Warhorse to the stage, jumping both sides of the Atlantic, in another magnificent and magical invention.
After the success of that venture, the team decided to try their hand together on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and their workshop has become an on-going sandbox for play, performance and puppetry, as they keep on retooling this adventurous work.
It seems that in this iteration the performers were given more than usual license to be inventive and playful. The interactions with the audience before the play even started seemed a boisterous “letting out of the dogs” for the “mechanicals,” the workers ensemble and the third world of the play, who inevitably steal the show with their comic antics. In this case, they very enthusiastically welcomed us into their preparations for a big-deal wedding about to take place. You got the sense this might become Shakespeare meets “Tina and Tony’s Wedding.” There were even ad-libs sprinkled liberally throughout the show, a practice not all Shakespeare-ophiles would approve of, and it did occasionally “pad” the proceedings unnecessarily. (Did we really need the joke explained that a French yellow beard being little more than no beard was a jab to the French about having “the clap?”)
In the spirit of such inventiveness and clearly sheer delight of all, the creative team and its splendid ensemble of actors have brought new things to light. The music by Dave Price, played on found objects such as metal oil cans and planks of wood, seems even more integrated and beautiful.
The piece is truly an ensemble performance, and the separate “worlds” of the play constantly get blurred as actors move in and out of their featured roles to become the moving set of planks as the woods and other devices to help tell the story. At the beginning, Saskia Portway as Hippolyta establishes the foundation world of this production, a puppet/sculpture workshop, in which she represents a sculptor working on a great mask for the special occasion. With her platinum David Bowie hairdo, she is striking, but more so for her fierce focus as a craftswoman to the work at hand. When Theseus joins her, David Ricardo-Pearce matches her singular elegance of form and speech to pull off two people at the top of their game attempting to link their fortunes and destinies.
The character Egeus sets the proceedings of the play in motion, a kill-joy to young love if there ever was one. As father to Hermia, he would rather see his daughter die than marry a man not of his choosing. Actor Miltos Yerolemou’s unyielding fury is palpable, and in the opening scene Yerolemou and the lovers take their time to invest the scene with fear and loathing, where the stakes seem horrendous and we feel the lovers’ anguish at the untenable situation.
Naomi Cranston, Akiya Henry, Alex Felton, and Kyle Lima, as the lovers, have lived a long time inside these roles and convey an unusual investment in the twist-and-turns of their relationships. I was particularly captivated by their strong physicality. Cranston’s lanky body sprinting in and out of scenes, all knee nobs and elbows akimbo, conveyed adolescence at its most quixotic and emotionally vulnerable. Henry positively manages to spring off the floor when her emotions are lit, reminding me of a Pekingese I once had whose imperious bark launched his squat little body into the air.
The characters of Lysander and Demetrius can be a rather wooden Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-Dee duo, but Felton and Lima throw themselves physically into their roles, mining both the over-the-top passion of young adolescent males and the humor in their situation. Felton drops to his knees, bares and beats his chest, weeps and tears emotion to a tatter. Lima seems only slightly more brooding and reined in but it was the second time I was mesmerized by the giant actor’s focus and truthfulness; his every moment seems fully realized.
In the woods, the fairy world lets loose, and the magic of puppetry comes to the fore. Not only do the fairies (Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed) get a reinvention as carved wooden puppets, but Puck pushes “imagination” even further, animated as a composite figure of unattached, changeable tool parts with three voices and handlers. Puck in multiple configurations signals his relationship to Oberon, by at times wagging his tail like an obedient dog, at others molecularly disintegrating and heading “’round the world,” to suggest he’s run amok.
Puppets abound in the show using different materials and scale. Titania and Oberon are experienced as huge masks held aloft with Oberon provided with a giant hand. The hand comes to life and becomes most expressive as it caresses, guides, and drops the magically potent “juice” in lovers’ eyes. When these masks join at the end in the final image, they become the giant wicker couple of Theseus and Hippolyta that slowly moves downstage. The ritual of preparing for a wedding is complete, and the giant puppets enter into a kind of culminating court dance to bless the proceedings. (Opening night, we were also treated at the curtain call to one of the actors, Christopher Keegan, pulling up his girlfriend onto the stage and proposing, extending the “life mirrors art” celebration.)
Keegan and his cohorts delighted us throughout the evening as the “rude mechanicals” trying to rehearse a play. Saikat Ahamed, Colin Michael Carmichael, Fionn Gill, Lucy Tuck, and Miltos Yerolemou showed how much fun they were having, ever inventive in their multiple role-playing. Yerolemou was the most unusual Bottom I have ever had the privilege to view, and he shared his considerable gifts at all levels. It must be said that the play within the play at the end is foolproof, and this crew of fools carried the hilarity off with aplomb and stark abandon.
Of course one’s perception of a production depends so much on the theatrical space performed in, even the angle at which one views the performance. The Eisenhower is a barn of an auditorium and not helpful for nuanced performing. I lost some of the intimacy and immediacy of the actor-audience relationship. The actors were still trying to play the space opening night, including balancing vocal sound against Christopher Shutt’s sound design. Philip Gladwell’s lighting, that had seemed so fantastic in its abundant inclusion of side-lighting, terrific for animating puppets, seemed to plunge live performers’ facial expressions into too much darkness. The four fairies, who in my mind had been such startling, frightful and delightful “stars” of the show, seemed less wildly present and – well more like puppets.
The most puzzling and disturbing change that had been made to the play was the jettisoning of the lover puppets. Leaving off having the lovers perform with their own diminutive selves, jointed doll-like stand-alone puppets, to my mind hurt the production in several ways.
First, each of the lovers had once had a “mini me” that helped in Scene 1 to introduce the audience to the world of puppets and readied everyone to accept and invest in the life of inanimate objects. In a previous incarnation, when planks and blocks of woods had moved, we had been right there fully engaged in partnering the belief that the spirits inside the wood pieces took on a life of their own.
Second, and an omission that affected things more subtly, I would say that while the four lovers are clearly gifted actors, I missed the focus and the clean, slightly lifted physical style that working with puppets forced these actors to perform within such economical means. Perhaps Morris’ decision came from rethinking that it is in the metaphorical woods that the spirits are let loose, but, if so, now we lose the arc of the lovers’ journey. (Before, only at the climax had they abandoned their “dolls,” like children might do, growing up into their most human selves.
If we are going to split hairs, I will also mention that the bawdy moments were somewhat, though not altogether, tamed in this 2014 version. The puppet, Mr. Mustardseed, seemed to have checked some of his libido in his dressing room. The magnificence of Bottom’s revelation and Titania’s delicious discoveries of their coupling were kept within an R-rating. I wondered: had the company been warned that Washington performances are always being monitored by the Tea Party’s morality watchdogs, hell bent on further decimating our National Endowment for the Arts?
Nonetheless, this is a one-of-a-kind performance. Tom Morris and his splendid ensemble should not be missed, not if you value entering into the co-creation of theatrical magic.
This performance closed March 23, 2014. The World Stages International Festival continues at The Kennedy Center through March 30, 2014. Details and tickets.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare . Directed by Tom Morris . Produced by Bristol Old Vic in association with Handspring Puppet Company . Presented as part of the World Stages Festival at the Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.