A Midsummer Night’s (Queer) Dream
With the authentic version of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream", now starring Bebe Neuwirth, on show currently in New York it does make any reinterpretation of the play rather difficult. All things equal, a purist view of Shakespeare may feel irrelevant in the global state of affairs we’re in but with Shakespeare authenticity could be everything.
What gives "A Midsummer Night’s (Queer) Dream" its angle, and deliberately queer angle as such, is the gender-reversal of Helena and Lysander and a same-sex marriage in the play. The freshness of same-sex marriage, now a year on in New York, felt stale and not quite as rigorous as perhaps the first run of the show last year when topically gay marriage was trending on both Twitter and almost every New Yorker’s mouth.
The play has three important plots interlinked by the set wedding of Duke Theseus of Athens (played by Samuel Gaines) and the Amazon queen Hippolyta (played by Meghan Grace O’Leary) set in the forest under the moonlight.
The first is Hermia (played by Marissa Parness) who protests her father Egeus’ (played by Ron Bobst) demands to marry Demetrius (played by Alan Winner) or face death as per Athenian law. Theseus, reinterpreted as a Barack Obama figure here, suggests chasteness and the worship of goddess Diana as another option to damsel Hermia.
The next is where Peter Quince, a carpenter, directs actors in the forest to put up a stage play ’the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe’ for the royals. Most notable is Nick Bottom (played by Kyle Haggerty) who wants to play every role available. A hilarious representation of the arrogant Nick Bottom by Haggerty -- sharp and humorous as the play so desperately craves.
Lastly the King of the fairies, Oberon (played by Meghan Grace O’Leary), hails his naughty sidekick Puck (played by Chris Critelli) to punish Titania, his Queen, for her refusal to bow to his demands to give up her changeling to him. Puck is instructed to assist Oberon to apply a bewitching floral juice, ’love in idleness’, to sleeping Titania. The formula’s objective is that Titania will fall in love with the first living thing, potentially animal of course, seen when she awakes.
Oberon had also seen Demetrius act cruelly towards Helena and commands Puck to spread some of this enchanting fluid on his eyelids. But in true Shakespearean misidentification Puck mistakes Lysander (played by Shira Gregory) for Demetrius.
Helena then wakes Lysander, who looked dead perhaps, and is immediately the focus of Lysander’s love. Of course when Demetrius goes to sleep, Puck hexes his eyes, and when he awakes finding Helena he is totally in love.
The ever doubting, self-doubting Helena questions this double love when she was never in demand. So when Hermia discovers that Lysander has eyes for Helena, she accuses her rival of stealing such affections. A fight ensues and Lysander and Demetrius crave a duel to prove their love for Helena. Oberon tries to get Puck to take away the magic from Lysander so he can return to Hermia.
In the meantime Puck transforms Bottom’s head into that of a donkey without him noticing immediately. Titania finds Bottom irresistible and falls in love with him as she finds him singing in the forest. Oberon takes control, now being able to claim the changeling, and arranges that everything appears to be a dream to the entire entourage. Spells are broken and it all appears to have been a dream. But has it been?
In 1970 Peter Brook staged "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" for the Royal Shakespeare Company in a white box complete with burly circus trick fairies. A host of British actors including Ben Kingsley and Patrick Stewart became involved and, for the time, it represented a contemporary take on a rather stiff Shakespeare. This ensued an opening of free imaginations for the play and the sexuality aspect was heightened, genders were bent and the stage became a place to express both the restraint and the liberation of the play.
But 40 years on, a new view of the work is gravely necessary, this production of the maddeningly mad play makes an attempt to have a strong opinion for the current state of affairs but loses it in its overall conviction.
With elements like strobe lights, throbbing music, and sexual shadow puppets by Joseph Jonag Therrien, the play regresses to the ’90s and loses its contemporary edge of showcasing the current state of affairs with too much deliberation to try and be ’new’.
The same general principle applies when it comes to the scenic designer Justin Couchra’s interpretation of the stage -- the artistic composition lacks focus with too many incongruous elements, perhaps indicative of the mixed up nature of the play, but the visual appeal and use of space fails to link to the very essence of the work. In terms of responsibility to design the set can easily restricts the actor’s ability to let them be 100% free.
The Hive first brought their version of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" to Manhattan last year July with rave reviews. The show has now taken on the Theatre for the New City in the East Village for a limited engagement.