A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

American Shakespeare Center, Staunton, VA, 2011-12 Almost Blasphemy Tour.

Jake Mahler as Lysander and Denice Mahler as Hermia

Harley Granville Barker, a director, Shakespeare scholar and clever redhead, wrote, “Let us humbly own how hard it is not to write nonsense about art.”  He wrote this in his preface to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a kind of nonsense that becomes art.  In no particular order, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is love, sex, wooing, (spoiler alert!) wedding, upsetting one’s parents, taking the occasional woman by storm (or at least by conquest), magic, moonlight, misunderstanding, transformation and all the domains that there adjacent lie.

We love this play, we produce this play, we come see this play because of the rich and multi-faceted ways in which it shows us how ridiculous we are and how essential love is.  Through the four social strata of the play (aristocracy, gentry, laborers and immortals), we discover a sense of wonder, a sense of play, the fragile relationship between order and chaos, the danger inherent in passions suppressed or denied.  Through the very structure of his language – from rhymed couplets to blank verse to intense shared verse lines and back again — Shakespeare shows us relationships fraying and fracturing, recovering and healing.

Many of us have made impulsively bad decisions in pursuit of love; we can probably all remember foolishness once upon a summer night.  Helena’s fairly clear-eyed, for instance, about the rose-colored glasses she wears for Demetrius: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transform to form and dignity,” but Helena wants Demetrius back so intensely that she is willing to risk her best friend’s life on one last chance at love.  Titania loves Oberon, but she’s not about to give him that Indian boy; petulant Oberon is quite prepared to force her hand by whatever magical means necessary.

Dreams can be wonderful stuff, but they often careen out of control.  Moonlight can be romantic, but it casts shadows.  Both can skew our perceptions in alarming ways, firing our imaginations to suspect the worst, the sexiest, the cruelest, the most frightening.  The line between a dream and a nightmare can be thin and full of fissures.  Is it a nightmare because it ends badly or wakes you with a start?  Does it remain a dream because it has a happy ending?  When or how does it cross over from one to the other?  A happily moonlit playground and a dark, scary forest can be bordered by the same trees.

Rehearsing Titania's first entrance

Rehearsing with Bridge Rue, Daniel Stevens, Ronald Peet, Kevin Hauver and Stephanie Holladay Earl l Photo by Tommy Thompson

Titania's first entrance in performance

Dreams and nightmares are both difficult to recall in sharp detail upon waking, drifting ephemerally away as one struggles to remember.  Like snowflakes and productions of Midsummer, no two are quite alike.  The four Athenian lovers and Titania come to a new understanding through their experiences in the forest; they find their way to a new or restored love, even as they strive to recall the details.  Bottom seems happily unaware of his transformation, but his company’s performance of Pyramus & Thisbe casts into relief all of the heated emotions of the forest journey.  For all of the strife, upset and discord, no one has died; no one grieves.  The “story of the night told over /… grows to something of great constancy.”

The churlish Samuel Pepys saw a production of this play in 1662, and observed in his diary: “To the King’s Theatre where we saw Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.”  The play is ridiculous, but we hope it is delightfully so, and filled with the rich complexity, wonder and joy of new love discovered and old love savored.

Critical response

“Out in the Shenandoah Valley, they make Shakespeare the old-fashioned way. And by old-fashioned, I don’t mean stodgy or rigid or by trilling the lines as if every word were an opportunity to trot out the glazed ham.

“Crisply and cannily directed by Kathleen Powers, this Midsummer is free of the high-concept distortions rampant in classical theater these days: the eschewing of scenery acts as a kind of liberation from the burden of reinvention, of transplanting the action to the Gobi Desert, or Cyprus in the 1890s, or the grounds of a defunct circus. No, here — with Powers’s encouragement — the actors simply do the play. And without makeup or spotlights, the production manages to fully evoke Shakespeare’s magical night.”

— Peter Marks, The Washington Post

A Midsummer Night’s Dream sparkles at the Blackfriars: You will ask yourself, ‘Is it possible that anyone can be this funny for this long at this rate of speed and not fold up like a lawn chair?’

“You will waggle your head in wonderment, and maybe even in disbelief, but there’s no denying the evidence of your senses:  The American Shakespeare Center’s traveling troupe has opened the spring season with more energy and élan than should be allowed by law.

“The creative vision of director Kathleen Powers and the stunning abilities of her 11-member troupe have transformed Shakespeare’s charming, daffy play into a brilliant two-hour frolic that audiences aren’t likely to forget.”

— Charles Culbertson, Staunton News-Leader

Here is what one sixth grader thought:

“That was amazing, and a little bit inappropriate.”

And, some college students:

“The company did a phenomenal job and had me laughing from start to end. It is one thing to read the play, which I have more than once, and to see the words just come alive as these people did was truly wonderful. After the performance ended my friend and I went to their website to look at future shows that would be playing this season. We hope to take a trip to VA, for another chance to see this astounding company perform once again.”

“My attention was kept the entire time; I have been to 3 plays on Broadway and didn’t have as much fun as I did here. I thought it was great.”

“It was fantastic. The actors were great, really involved the audience, never got boring. Even the intermission with the live band was phenomenal. This would totally convince me to take a theatre or Shakespeare class. Just seeing Shakespeare in person, as its meant to, really adds to the significance and impact of his work.”

“I adored the play and the company that performed it. I laughed so much that my face actually hurt.”

“After such an enjoyable performance, I have only one question on my mind: Can they come back again?”

“… I want to thank you deeply from the bottom of my heart for reminding me what passion looks like. What passion feels like! All of you have an infectious energy about you and I walked away from the first performance feeling as if you gave me little pieces of yourselves to take back to my dorm room. You guys are PHENOMENAL and I can honestly say that you have touched my life this weekend.  I am profoundly grateful.”

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