Monday, August 3, 2015

'A Midsummer Night's Dream': A Spectacular Flower in Shakespeare's Garden

            "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is classic entertainment for a warm summer night. Conditions were optimal when we saw the Bay Colony Shakespeare Company perform it Friday night at Plymouth Center for the Arts -- the town packed, the moon full, a young audience primed for laughter. Every line and gesture in the 'rude mechanicals' concluding play-within-a-play drew shrieks of merriment from the lasses with flowers in their hair and kept even older sensibilities happily entertained. 
            One of (if not) the best of Shakespeare's comedies, 'Dream' is well suited to a contemporary performance milieu in which comic invention, physical comedy, topical allusions,  gestural language, and stark social class contrasts provide an opportunity for actors to stretch their skills and draw audiences into a collaboration on free-floating laugh-in momentum such as Friday's show generated.
            This is the play that gives us Bottom the weaver (played with outrageous and effective hammy-ness by Dev Luthra) plus a number of other local products with inspired names such as Snug the Joiner and Starveling the tailor, a crew more likely to be found in Shakesperae's Southwark neighborhood than ancient Athens. (Were tailors that badly paid in Elizabethan London?) And it's hard to come up with a better name for a mischievous, heavy-handed trickster sprite than 'Puck,' who enjoys pulling stools from underneath tired goodwives, leading mortals astray, and scaring them out of their wits when midnight rendezvouses in the woods turn nasty. It's Puck (played wittily by the company's Ross Magnant) who gives us the oft-repeated apostrophe, "O what fools these mortals be!"
            The play also gives us a feuding fairy king and queen, played by the same actors who take the roles of Theseus and Hippolyta (Neil McGarry and Poornima Kirby), representing the courtly upper strata, though again more like the nobles in the poet's London than figures from Greek myth. The queen is served by a retinue of fairies called by names such as Peaseblossom and Cobweb, gathered from the English countryside. 
            Meanwhile the play's young lovers, straight from Elizabethan central casting, play their own comedy of errors, victimized by a fairy plot gone awry. It's the two ladies -- it's always the ladies in Shakespeare's comedies -- who give us the passionate, eloquent liveliness that turns confusion and circumstance into something special. Has any writer in English given us more consistently appealing women characters drawn from ordinary life in his world yet recognizable in our own? MND's s Hermia and Helena -- played with verve and commitment by (respectively) Raisa Hoffman and Meredith Stypinski -- are indistinguishable 'gentle' maids except that for some reason two even less distinguishable upper-class swains have both fallen for the same girl.
            The girls' names are similar enough that its hard to keep them straight no matter how many times you've seen this play. Shakespeare makes no attempt to provide an explanation for the young people's love choices. His young-lover characters are not 'motivated.' They are as, Romeo says in a related play "fortune's fools." Midsummer Night Dream's deeper critique of human behavior is that there is no essential difference between young lovers. They behave the way they do not because they are 'authentic' free individuals, but because of societal roles, circumstances of birth, and other, even more powerful forces. Love is 'madness' (as the ancient Greek philosophers taught); reason or deeper motivation need not apply. Shakespeare's comic characters are also a comment on youth itself. His young 'fools' lack a truly individualized or 'motivated' character because they are not yet fully realized or complete people.
            When, during the dreamlike night that names the play, Puck's mistakes (compounded by his evil glee) reverse the charge on one of the men's magnets form Hermia to Helena, and then the other's, all the youngsters are completely confused about how to answer the age-old question 'who do you love?'
            The women's response, in one of comedy-of-manner's more inspired bits of dialogue is to dig up some pseudo-reason to explain the irrational changes and then run it into the ground. This must all have something to do, Hermia complains to her erstwhile BFF Helena, with the fact that you're taller than me. When things get comically nasty, Helena is reduced to warning her men (I'm paraphrasing), "though she be small, yet she is vicious..."
            The fairies are no less, or more, human. They play the role of the metaphysical forces that cause people to behave as they do. We're the playthings of fate, chance, bad luck, social conditions, genes, hormones, and tricks of appearance. Puck's misapplication of a love drug -- stands for both accident and compulsion. Though it's s hard to see their behavior as any more absurd or arbitrary than Athens's 'patriarchal' laws that make a daughter her father's property. He may dispose of a disobedient daughter by sending her to a nunnery (a la Hamlet's advice to Ophelia) or by execution. 
            The best medicine for this 'contingent' state of affairs turns out to be laughter.
           A cruel joke played by fairy king Oberon on his queen Titania, when they are quarreling, places the love spell on her to make her fall in love with the 'vulgar' Bottom; Puck adds 'ass's ears' to make Bottom's appearance monstrous. But Bottom takes the adoration of the queen in stride. For all his absurd vanity his character has a solidity that withstands Puck's (and life's) humiliations the way the younger characters have not yet learned to do.
            The "brief, tedious" folk-theater piece ('Pyramus and Thisbe') Bottom and company perform for Theseus and Hippolyta is inspired slapstick. We've seen many bravura takes of this set-piece (at Shakespeare & Company one year the rude mechanicals arrived in a pickup truck with their hammers hanging from their belts), but I don't think we we've seen a better one. The acting suite of Luthra, Erica Simpson as the play's put-upon director, Ben Gutman, Peter Trenouth and Andrew Child wring more personality from roles titled "Wall," "The Moon," and "The Lion" than can be imagined without witnessing the production. Luthra's inspired take on the uncontainably-spastic rock-star stylings of the sublimely narcissistic Bottom -- a superhero in his own world -- kept the 'groundlings' in stitches.   
            [The Bay Colony Shakespeare Company will complete its summer season with alternating performances of "The Winter's Tale" and "A Misummer Night's Dream" from Thursday, Aug. 6, to the Aug. 16 at the Jane Carr Amphitheater at South Shore Conservatory, 1 Conservatory Drive, Hingham at 7 pm. Tickets are $20 -$25. See or call (917) 670-1184.]