A Midsummer Night’s Dream has always seemed to me to be 75 percent of a wonderful comedy. Theseus and Hippolyta don’t get many laughs but they say some beautiful words. Those loony lovers going increasingly manic in the woods are a lot of fun. And the fairy royals and their supernatural retinue keep the plot whirling along delightfully. It’s when those Rude Mechanicals lumber in that I wince, and when they stage Pyramus and Thisbe I squirm. Their shenanigans always come across to me as a patronizing upper crust wink at those quaint people who have to dirty their hands with honest work. Was Shakespeare really such a snob?
Apart from one sublime Stratford version that made everybody in the play a real person, most productions I’ve seen go along with the received wisdom that belittles those funny working folk. But the new Dream being staged in broad sixties style by PacRep at the Forest Theater is an equal opportunity production. It doesn’t just look down on the clumsy acting troupe. It looks down on almost everybody, high born or proletarian. .
So, the usually stuffy Duke is a take-off on John Wayne (get it?) in cowboy attire, who joins his whip-wielding cowgirl fiancée in interrupting all that tiresome poetry with noisy parlor games. The quartet of lovers are, if anything, more boisterous than the mechanicals. They shriek, scream, weep, kick butt (and crotch) from the get-go. Not much build. Just one loud note. The only characters to rise above the screaming and mayhem are the fairies. They at least are attractive looking, speak clearly, fly gracefully from time to time above the set and, paradoxically enough, show some recognizable signs of humanity.
Granted, a version in a big outdoor setting like Carmel’s Forest Theater has got to be played broad. But I have seen that done at comparable open-air venues with plenty of wild comedy but a clear projection of the other performance styles which make for variety and which this four-plot work seems to call for.
It may be possible to stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream like one long combination of Hellzapoppin and an animated cartoon. But it seems to me such an approach would require slapstick and shtick of a machine-like clarity and precision that just aren’t evident in this production. And even if that did happen, all of that fancy 16th century dialogue would still keep getting in the way.
A wise man of the theater once said to me that if you don’t trust the script, you probably ought to be doing a different play.
Weekend performances continue through October 20. Photo by Stephen Moorer