Lunatics, lovers and poets
A spirited, updated version of a Shakespeare classic at Laxson
One of the magical delights of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the way its poetry and its appeal to the imagination draw us into the enchanted Athenian/English woods and fuel our lives with a sweetness of vision and sense of grace from which we never entirely escape.
Such was not the emphasis of the Aquila Theatre Company’s Sunday-evening presentation of Shakespeare’s play before a nearly full Laxson Auditorium. Rather, as the ensemble’s program notes stated, it strove to re-shape the play “as live, visceral and, above all, entertaining theatre.”
In truth, its speeded-up, carefully choreographed, clearly spoken, slightly updated version of the play did seem to appeal especially as it sped toward the tradesmen’s hammy performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” which, in essence, ended the show.
The Aquila Company is not a regular company, but an ensemble, working with only eight actors, six of whom played two parts and one, three. This in itself was impressive, as was the choreography in a number of situations. Watching the way Lysander (Andrew Schwartz) moved during the initial confrontation with Theseus (Kenn Sabberton) and Egeus (Guy Oliver-Watts) was a delight, as was seeing Hermia (Lindsay Rae Taylor) climb through, over and around Lysander in her attempt to hold on to him after he has been tricked into loving Helena.
The risk of such choreography is that it sometimes makes one wonder which is more important—the machine or the characters in it. The characters were, in truth, a bit flattened (most comic characters start off as “types” and then grow rounded as they undergo various trials and tribulations). This flatness hurt in the case of the play’s two most interesting characters, Helena (Renata Friedman) and Bottom (Richard Willis).
Helena is interesting because she is the young lover who takes the greatest risk—by running off into the woods without any real hope of making Demetrius (Ryan Conarro) love her. She is the first of Shakespeare’s several Elizabeth-flattering blonde heroines and suffers the most—thus making her a little more human than the others. The Aquila production treated her more as a sit-commish, sexually frustrated, quasi-nymphomaniac and limited her portrayal of frustration to holding her arms at her sides, shaking, and jumping up and down very fast, which grew tedious.
Bottom is interesting because, standing for us, he is the one character who really delights in what the imagination can do—both in the “Pyramus” play he puts on and in his ass-headed sojourn in the woods. During much of the play, he was treated as a relatively flat buffoon, whose buff mannerisms also grew tedious, and whose rolling across the floor as if having sex with fairy-queen Titania (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey—an especially appealing actress) seemed unnecessary—along with a couple of rather tired “boob” jokes.
But who can say? As someone who has occasionally tricked kids into loving Shakespeare through a musical version of Hamlet and a western spoof called Johnny Macbeth, I know there are many roads leading to The Bard. Sunday’s audience was filled with area high-school students, many of whom had not read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, perhaps, never seen Shakespeare on stage. They seemed to like the play enormously.
And there was much to help them. Puck (Oliver-Watts) was a spirited, athletically agile and able commentator on the play’s action. The forest setting, which consisted of more than 20 umbrellas, a few hanging above the set and many more lying opened on the stage like tipped-over, fairy-concealing mushrooms, was particularly clever.
As a first step toward Shakespeare and as a reminder of the playwright’s versatile plotting (this is the only Shakespeare play for which there is no known source), the Aquila Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream had a lot going for it.