A Midsummer Night’s Dream Opens Summer with a Luscious Wink

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
Drew University
Route 24
Madison, New Jersey

Somewhere towards the middle of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened the outdoor season of the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey on Saturday, stage hands illuminated all of the trees that surrounded the Greek amphitheater that is nestled into a hillside.  The audience could see the stage, the real forest and the stars overhead, turning the setting into the very realistic magical forest from the play.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a rollicking comedy about lovers in twelfth century B.C. Athens.  They cavort at the Athenian palace and in the magic forest inhabited by a band of faeries led by the Fairy Queen Titania and are entertained by the impish fairy Puck.  In the forest, the magical Oberon has Puck sprinkle special dust over people to make them fall in love.  Puck gets everybody confused, though, and mirthful chaos ensues.  Amid all of this racing about, people splash in a pond, drenched to the core, and a band of overzealous local workers stage a crazy play.

Ever since the play was first formally staged at the end of the sixteenth century, directors have staged it in different eras and adorned their actors with a wild mix of costumes.  In this production, director Cameron Watson, who has done a masterful job with the play, dresses most of his actors in twenty-first century clothing, some in twelfth-century B.C. robes and some in Shakespearean England garb.  Puck, as an example, looks like a zany 2011 urban street kid, baseball hat pulled down firmly over his forehead, as he races through the forest, squirting people with a huge, science fiction style water gun.

This version of the play, one of Shakespeare’s most popular, is full of myth and magic and is a sure fire summertime hit for the theater.  Director Watson has done a fine job of cutting the script down to a very manageable ninety minutes without losing any of the vitality of the story.  There are some slow moments in the middle of the play, but, in general, this is a zestful production that is at times quite funny and all the time quite entertaining.

The magic of the outdoor theater is evident right away as the play opens on the Greek ruins set of the amphitheater that looms over the stage.  It sets the Greek marriage theme and the stories of the romance-driven lovers immediately.

The plot is simple. Theseus is going to marry his beloved Hippolyta, head of an Amazon tribe. Her friend Hermia is scheduled to marry Demetrius, whom she can’t stand.  She loves Lysander.  She has to go through with the arranged marriage to Demetrius, though, much to the consternation of her friend Helena, who loves Demetrius.  Demetrius can’t stand Helena.

Got it so far?

Utter craziness follows as Hermia and Lysander flee Athens and venture into the magical forest to start a new life.  There, they meet the Fairies and Titania.  Everybody in Athens knows they went into the forest and they are chased by all.  Puck, who watches them and says “what fools these mortals be,” mixes up the identity of all and sets the nuttiness of the play in motion.

The confused lovers race about trying to find order in the world as Oberon tries to right Puck’s wrongs.  Fairies flicker and flitter here and there, Titania bounds from meadow to meadow and the irascible Puck charms all.

The real stars of the play, though, are the local village workers who stage their own play within this play.  And their superstar is the mercurial Bottom, played with wonder by Robert Clohessy, who insists on playing all the roles in the show and changing them.  He lends Bottom a thick Brooklyn accent, giving the magic forest a little bit of Flatbush Avenue.  He and his colleagues are hilarious as they rehearse and then stage their play.  They use sight gags and pratfalls to pull wave after wave of laughter from the audience.

The play has been trimmed to just ninety minutes, in the style of the Shakespeare Festival, to attract a broader audience.  Purists may snarl at the idea, but audiences seem to enjoy it (the troupe’s next play, Timon of Athens, has also been cut to ninety minutes). The play uses a more streamlined cast than some other productions (some theaters have used hundreds of children in the cast) and this helps speed it along.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream does not rely on British history as much as many of the bard’s other works, but uses pretty good Greek history and myth, with a sprinkling of fairy chronicles, as its foundation.

There is much history in the play. Shakespeare often used stories from ancient Greece and Rome as the basis of his works. Here, he goes back to the twelfth century B.C., the Mycenaean age, and borrows the characters of Greek literature’s mythic king Theseus and the leader of the Asia Minor based-Amazon warriors Hippolyta. Theseus rules over a government that is still quite hierarchical, with the king firmly in command.  The nation has a small number of rich merchants and landowners and a large number of poor farmers, workers and sailors.  Women have few rights and often found themselves in unhappy arranged marriages.

Shakespeare added on to his Greek historical base with contemporary British touches.  It was rumored, but never proven, that he used the marriage of Thomas Berkeley and Elizabeth Carey as the wedding in his play.  Carey was the daughter of the Lord Chamberlain, who owned Shakespeare’s company.  The Bard borrowed his fairies from the huge legend of fairies that existed in England at that time. Puck was already a popular character in British folklore.

Whatever he did, and however he did it, Shakespeare did it well.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a delightful comedy, easy on the senses and pleasing to the eye.  The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey has staged a sturdy production of it bound to please just about all.

Director Cameron gets solid performances from Nitya Vidyasagar as Hippolyta/Titania, Josh Carpenter as Theseus/Oberon, Seamus Mulcahy as Puck, John Hickok as Egeus, Rebecca Mozo as Hermia, Brian Cade as Demetrius, Jack Moran as Lysander, Emily Kunkel as Helena, plus the workers’ theater troupe and fairy brigade.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Shakespeare Theater of New jersey. Sets: Adam Miecielica, Costumes: Kara Harmon, Lighting; Tony Galaska, Sound: Steve Beckel. Directed by Cameron Watson.

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