Saturday, July 19, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Performance Log (July 2008)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Directed by Mark Rucker (though rumor says he left town before he blocked and Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch stepped in)
Angus Bowmer Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Ashland Oregon
July 10, 2008

This is my third Midsummer Night's Dream at Ashland. In 1961 we saw it directed by B. Iden Payne. He had been central in Shakespeare production since 1913, the director of Stratford’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, head of theatre at Carnegie Tech and University of Texas, etc. We remember a delightful comedy in Elizabethan costume, probably a descendant of Granville-Barker without Mendelssohn, with the whole text. I’ve previously mentioned the lisping Helena (‘Demetweeus’) and the animated ass’s head, Disneyesque, with long coy eyelashes.

Then, in 1998, we saw another, directed by Penny Metropulos, which may have been a faithful reproduction of Peter Brook’s white “handball court” show. The Ashland set was light blue, though a huge orange moon was projected at night. As in Brook, Titania’s bower was a bed raised on cables to the second doors-to-empty-space level. After the first act the fairies were ever-present, blue-gowned with red fright-wigs, version of Chinese property men, invisibly handing props to the mortals, etc. Thus, I have seen the two major strings of Twentieth Century Dreams.

This Ashland production is over the top, no holds barred, full of energy and color and surprise, unlike any Midsummer Night's Dream I’ve ever seen film or stage. Everything in it was new (or novel) except the lines. I noticed no cuts or additions, except some lines were sung, notably the last 67, from Puck’s “Now the hungry lion roars,” through Oberon’s fertility blessing, and finally, though obscured by rhythmic clapping for extended curtain call, Puck’s “If we shadows have offended.”

The (indoor) thrust stage opened with two halves of 30-foot arches with dozens of ceramic circles on them, arcing over two white vinyl overstuffed armchairs, the backs rising at least eight feet. Theseus, in a double-breasted ice-cream suit and shades, sat rigidly in one, Hippolyta in silky silver lamé in the other. His “Now fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour” was evenly delivered, even calculating. Ernst would have been disappointed in the dry rendition of the poetry. Hippolyta’s “Four nights will quickly dream away the time” was sensuous, squirming in her huge chair. Then off to the Egeus and Hermia business, now with perfect rhythms. I took several Will Shakespeare Experience questions to Ashland, one being my own attention to Hippolyta’s response to Theseus siding with Egeus against his “chattel” daughter. Theseus then concludes “Come my Hippolyta?” but Hippolyta had crisply stood and exited behind the chairs, leaving Theseus, to pause, then address the empty chair: “What cheer, my love?” I couldn’t have asked for better.

After the court scene (exeunt chairs) those ceramic circles lit up with multicolored neon and onto the (big) stage drove a … Merry Prankster VW micro bus, headlights shining, and out tumbled the rude Mechanicals, tall and short, eclectic costume, Francis Flute played by a little middle-aged woman, leading to audience delight on her “Nay, faith, let not me play a woman. I have a beard coming.” We were in Oregon, but I suspect the resemblance of Ray Porter, as Bottom, to Ken Kesey was no accident. After the VW backed off stage, doing no set damage, the arches twisted into towers, neon starbursts filled the sky, and on came a … chorus line from Les Ballets Trokadero de Monte Carlo—flaming fairy fairies—in tutus and multicolored hair, and awaaay we go.

Both the passages Randall finds crucial to Titania’s strength were fine, uncut. Her “These are the forgeries of jealousy” was delivered with anger until she softened at “the moon, the governess of floods,” and Oberon was moved away from his harsh “Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania” greeting. Her “fairy land buys not the child of me” was lushly poetic, transported, tender. Despite the prancing fairies, none of this descended into farce. Bottom was not an oaf; he was sweet, naïve, enthusiastic.

The key question, what did I learn from a new production of a familiar play, probably came from the mortal lovers, scorned for 250 years. These four actors were sexual, hands-on, jealous, lustful, threatened, confused, sincere, passionate. The course of true love never did run less smooth. The “Athenian garb” Puck is sent to search for was white, white dusters over white blouses and shirts and trousers and skirts and lace stockings. During the mistakes of the night, more and more garments are discarded or ripped off until the boys were down to boxer shorts and the girls in pastel teddies. In some struggle poor Helena lost a strap and had a scene clad an unplanned Wonder Bra and a stocking around one ankle, though her garter belt tabs dangled interestingly around her thighs. No matter. The physicality merely punctuated the lines.

The only part that did not enhance my understanding—and pleasure—in this production was Puck, taller but really just another in the fairy chorus line. But then you remember that I own the part of Puck because once upon a time I won the part from Richard Chamberlain. Oh, well.

Then, being in Ashland, we were off to Coriolanus and Othello and an adaptation of The Comedy of Errors set somewhere west of the Pecos….

“No more,” quoth King Henry, and Gil, too.

photo: (above) Jeffrey King, Josiah Phillips, Ray Porter and U. Jonathan Toppo in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Photo by David Cooper.

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