Theatre Tulsa's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Whitson Hanna, favors slap-stick physical comedy over Shakespeare's poetry. Though the production fails to evoke much sympathy for the characters, its over-the-top sense of humor will have the audience in stitches.
This is the paragraph in my reviews where I normally provide a brief synopsis, but first a brief aside. I had considered skipping the summary this time because, I mean, who hasn't seen or read A Midsummer Night's Dream before? However, I overheard two audience members discussing the play during intermission. The first of them was confused about the plot, so the second provided her an explanation.
I realized that, no matter how often A Midsummer Night's Dream gets produced (too often, in my opinion; the man did write other plays), there will always be someone seeing it for the first time. One pitfall of performing such an over-produced script is playing it to the audience members who've seen it before, and forgetting to tell the story to those who haven't.
In ancient Athens two young lovers, Hermia and Lysander, court each other despite the wishes of Hermia's father Egeus. He prefers that his daughter marry Demetrius, with whom Hermia's best friend Helena is madly in love. (Confused yet? Wait.) The king, Theseus, who has just married Hippolyta, orders Hermia to marry Demetrius, and therefore she decides to elope that night with Lysander. Helena tells Demetrius in an attempt to gain his favor, but instead he races into the night to find Hermia; Helena chases after him.
Meanwhile, the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, feud over the ownership of a "changeling" boy whom Titania has adopted. Oberon's servant Puck, a magical trickster, fetches for his king a flower that will cause Titania to fall in love with the first thing she sees. On a whim, Oberon also tells Puck to cause Demetrius to fall in love with Helena, but Puck accidentally casts the flower's spell on Lysander instead. Lysander, thus bewitched, falls in love with Helena. Puck tries to correct the error by casting the spell on Demetrius, but Helena, now pursued by both men, believes they're all mocking her, and blames Hermia.
While all this is happening, a bunch of local blue-collar (toga?) workers have gathered to rehearse a play, which they desire to perform for king Theseus in honor of his wedding. Bottom the weaver, locally renowned for his (extremely melodramatic) acting talent, tries to take over rehearsals. He believes he knows best, and wants the play to succeed. However, Puck stumbles upon them in the woods and turns Puck into a donkey, with whom Titania, bewitched by the magic flower, falls in love.
The remainder of the play's action involves the intertwining and unraveling of these plot lines.
It's a complicated play, especially upon one's first viewing. If the characters' motivations aren't clear, then it's difficult to find much of the dialogue engaging.
So, how does this production fare? Let's take a closer look.
The play's most physically challenging scene is the climactic argument amongst the four young lovers. The argument escalates as Lysander and Demetrius both attempt to woo Helena while at the same time spurning Hermia. In turn, Helena blames Hermia while Hermia pleads ignorance, which only ratchets up the tension.
This production chooses to ignore much of the scene's compelling dialogue in favor of a Looney Tunes-like chase in the background, and other sight gags. Due to the general hilarity, the text fades and vanishes.
The classicist in me finds that deeply troubling, but I have to admit that the physical comedy is well-rehearsed and well-executed. I was a little worried that my knee-slapping was annoying other audience members until I realized that pretty much everyone else was in hysterics, too.Having Lysander and Demetrius accidentally kiss each other is a tricky joke, but these actors neatly pull it off. They made me believe that the two men, so wrapped up in nuzzling and caressing Helena, fail to realize she has slipped away and continue to grope each other. Not only that, but their subsequent surprise and disgust spurred them into the bitter recriminations that culminate in their fistfight.
In retrospect, I find it remarkable that the lovers' physical beats could be so clear and lively when their textual beats were so mechanical. While they wrestled and chased each other with such vigor, they merely rattled off their lines.
Luckily (especially for the classicist in me) we don't completely miss out on the sinewy poetry of Shakespeare, as there are several actors in the production who use that language to pursue their characters' dreams.
Randy Chronister makes some wonderful choices as Puck. He embodies the sly caprice of the trickster fairies by slipping from one persona to another; one line he'll be a wry, sarcastic sophisticate and the next he'll become a tough, drawling cowboy. He takes lines that other Pucks tend to rush past, and makes them all his own; I especially loved his take on "I go. Look how I go." And even though his whimsy fits well within the production's slap-stick style, his fidelity to the poetry's aural texture and iambic pentameter remains unbroken.
Lara Wells's Titania balances raw magical power with sultry allure. She also plays well the foil to Bottom's foolishness. Her opening monologues with Oberon, however, are unfortunately overshadowed by the lighting design, which, though successfully setting the mortal world apart from this immortal fairy realm, borders on mere spectacle.
Starr Hardgrove's Oberon has the clearest relationship with Puck that I've ever seen. Though Puck is beholden to him, and fears his power, the two share an obvious companionship, and delight each other with their antics. They are a hilarious duo.
Noel Fairbrothers's broad style suits Bottom well. She has developed a clear physical rhythm and gesture life for this character that immediately communicate Bottom's personality. Her playfulness with Bottom's donkey brays is delightful. I do question the director's choice to have Bottom's companions mock and scorn her, though. Their scenes work best, comically speaking, when the players admire Bottom. Let the audience mock Bottom's melodrama and braggadocio; it's not as much fun if the characters do it for us.
Despite a rocky opening scene and a slap-stick style which often degrades the text, Hanna's A Midsummer Night's Dream will spark interest in Shakespeare for those who've never seen one of his plays as well as providing much entertainment even for those who've seen the play a dozen times. Though the production relies primarily on sight gags for its success... well, they really are great gags. Go give it a look-see.
A Midsummer Night's Dream plays in Tulsa Performing Arts Center May 22-24 at 8pm. For more information, visit theatretulsa.org or call 587-8402.
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