This year I have been fortunate to see Midsummer Night's Dream at the Guthrie Theater with my ninth-grade classes, so without further ado, here's a performance log.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
directed by Joe Dowling
May 9, 2008
Joe Dowling is the Guthrie's artistic director. He's also the guy who usually takes on directing duties when it comes to Shakespeare. Last year I saw his Merchant of Venice (and I can't believe I didn't take the time to post a review of it because we were discussing it at the time). We saw his Hamlet the year before that. And a few years ago, I caught his Othello at the Guthrie Lab. The current production perfectly exemplifies what we can call the Dowling Rules.
Dowling Rule 1: Joe Dowling doesn't trust Shakespeare
There are dramatic reinterpretations of Shakespeare; there are liberties taken with Shakespeare; and there is what Joe Dowling does with Midsummer Night's Dream. You would be forgiven if you walked into the first act, then motioned the usher over to ask how you accidentally ended up in a Cirque du Soleil show. Punk fairies in ripped leather and day-glo accessories descend from the heavens on wires. Puck (Namir Smallwood) looks like he stole his costume from the winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz … and added a cod-piece. Titania (Emily Swallow) rises from the depths of the mossy forest floor in a giant geode. And throughout the production, Dowling has incorporated dancing and a high energy, high volume variety of songs that mine contemporary pop music forms.
So when Oberon (Nic Few) says, in Act 4, "Sound music! Come, my queen, take hands with me,/ And rock the ground whereon these sleepers be," Dowling takes him literally. Music sounds, and the fairies rock out with a heapin' helpin' of boy band choreography! And yes, the lyrics for the songs come from the dialogue and soliloquies of the play. And for me, therein lies the rub. I don't have a problem with turning Midsummer Night's Dream into a musical per se, but some of the better passages of the play end up rendered as Vegas show tunes. Watching it, it feels like Dowling thinks Shakespeare needs a little something extra. It's not the first time.
In his production of Othello, for example, at the Guthrie Lab in 2003, Dowling put on a fairly reserved production. A stately interior set put us in Othello's palace on Cyprus, with a pair of double doors leading to a balcony that overlooked the shimmering blue Mediterranean beyond. In the crucial scene where Iago is seducing Othello by insinuating Desdemona's unfaithfulness, the moment was punctuated by a sudden roll of thunder and flash of lightning. At no other time in the play did Dowling incorporate any atmospheric symbolism or pathetic fallacy stuff. And because we could see the outside through the doors, we knew no storm was actually in evidence. So what we got was this creepy Dr. Frankenstein moment, and I half expected Igor (Iago's long lost brother?) to lumber in. So, what? Iago's insidious evil in lines like "With her, on her; what you will," corrupting language, Desdemona's reputation, and Othello's faith and peace of mind all at once isn't chilling enough? We need a monster movie effect to remind us that Iago is … a monster? That's cartoonish.
Cartoon would be a good word for this Midsummer too. There's so much going on, it's easy to forget there's Shakespeare under it all. In his review in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dominic Papatola wrote: "this new Midsummer has you casting your eyes about the stage for a kitchen sink. Because, honestly, everything else is in there. You want tatted-up, spike-haired fairies flying in from the ceiling? Minnesota-inspired rube mechanicals traipsing through the auditorium? Choreography that references everything from 'Riverdance' to the Macarena? Got it. How about a Barack Obama reference? Technicolor codpieces the size of a Mini Cooper? Musical interpretations of Shakespeare's soliloquies set to doo-wop and hip-hop and funk? Yep. Interested in comely young lovers who would be at home on the Disney channel (except for the clothing flying off their bodies)? Maybe product placements for the Minnesota Gophers and Grain Belt Premium? Or actor Randy Reyes, workin' three of the most hilarious drag outfits ever seen on the Guthrie stage inside of 10 minutes? Check, check and double check."
You get the idea. How much is too much? When does Shakespeare get lost in production value? I've seen some great set pieces that have little to do with Shakespeare completely illuminate a play. But there is a line. And Dowling crosses it here. And the audience lets him. And that brings us to:
Dowling Rule 2: Joe Dowling doesn't trust you
This is a tough time for theaters. Competition for the entertainment dollar. Aging audiences. Sagging economy and expensive tickets. I guess you really have to wow your audience. What happens if the audience who bought tickets to see Midsummer Night's Dream gets, like, bored; starts, like, checking Twins scores on their Blackberries? Well never fear, Dowling's here. And he knows that you think a soliloquy is just a long, rambly speech. And that you'll like it more if it sounds like Mariah Carey is singing it. He knows that youth is in. And that Hamlet will be more accessible if he's played by a really young guy. He knows that evil is often accompanied by a "mooh-hoo-hoo-ha-ha-haaaa!" He knows that Shylock dude is a real downer, so he's got a fifth act planned for you that will make you forget you even saw Act 4. (For the curtain call, Robert Dorfman, who played Shylock, was not the last to emerge for the audience's recognizing applause. That honor went to Michelle O'Neill and Ron Menzel, who played Portia and Bassanio. This arrangement acknowledged Dowling's focus in the play on the lovers more than on Shylock, a focus that flattened out much of the emotional depth of the play in favor of its more light-hearted moments.)
Ernst suggested at the beginning of our Midsummer odyssey that embedded in a magical world of "unforgettable characters," of songs and "pure poetry," of archetypal plot, we find a play that comments on "the uses of Imagination," "rulers and forms of government," "love," "marriage," "parents and children," "different classes and their relationships with one another," etc. Dowling's Midsummer Night's Dream reduces imagination to pop cultural reference and costuming, love to four kids in their underwear chasing around a forest, and, well, that's about it. Thinking is hard work, and Dowling seems to worry that if the audience feels it has to think, it might not come back next time. This Midsummer is so full of sound and comedic fury, it's hard to get a thought in edgewise. Thinking back, over the tragedies even, few Dowling Shakespeare productions have asked me to think. Instead they ask us to simply sit back and enjoy. Which brings us to:
Dowling Rule #3: No one structures a comic moment in Shakespeare better than Joe Dowling
I have often found the rude mechanicals of Midsummer Night's Dream tedious. Dowling's are hilarious. And just as his Act 5 tour-de-force in Merchant of Venice stole the show last year, the Pyramus and Thisby portion of this Midsummer is unforgettable. For one, the laborers are a parody of both Minnesotans and bad community theater, enhanced by some fantastic character acting by the likes of Stephen Pelinski (Bottom), Randy Reyes (Francis Flute), and Sally Wingert (Robin Starveling). Wingert's character, Starveling, is the company's stage manager, has a thing for the company's director Peter Quince (Jim Lichtscheidel), and plays moon in the Pyramus thing. So, amid some undercurrent of company tensions (think Michael Frayn's Noises Off), on she comes with her lantern and her (stuffed) dog on a stiff leash, a stuffed dog that is subsequently stomped on and flattened by another cast member. The actors had to wait a significant time before the audience stopped laughing.
But Reyes's Flute rocked. Depressed at having to play the girl, again, he sulks through rehearsals, tries to hide in a sleeping bag, and generally avoids any real contribution to the company's work. Then, in a beautiful bait and switch, Dowling and Reyes's Flute/Thisby takes over "Pyramus and Thisby," moving from reticent foot-dragger to cross-dressing ham in the blink of an eye. He goes through three costume changes, each more outrageous (including the Frederick's of Hollywood mainstay, the French Maid) than the last. But think about that for a moment; when have you ever seen a production in which the Thisby dominates the "Pyramus and Thisby" piece? Probably never. And it works here because we've moved into the realm of seeming ad-lib and farce, more circus than Shakespeare. At this point, no complaints are allowed. The audience is entertained. They've gotten their money's worth. Purists, like me, can lump it.
Because that's entertainment! And Dowling rules.
Logged by Randall