“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Designed for Groundlings Only
Those who value Shakespeare’s poetry, and especially the transcendent language and fanciful, multi-layered plot of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” would do well to avoid Director Darko Tresnjak’s nearly nonsensical production, which opens the 2017-2018 season at Hartford Stage, and runs through Oct. 8.
Tresnjak may have had no deeper vision than simply to entertain, using the broadest possible physical comedy. To give him more credit, one might imagine that he has taken his inspiration from Puck’s famous line, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Only the fairies here—Titania, Oberon, and Puck—escape with some dignity. All the mortals—except those at the Court of Theseus—are directed to comport themselves in such a slapstick fashion that one begins to wonder whether Tresnjak is including the audience in Puck’s contempt.
Shakespeare created three distinct worlds in this play, each marked by a specific level of speech. Duke Theseus (a remarkable Esau Pritchett) and his soon-to-be wife, Queen Hippolyta (Scarlett Strallen, who neatly and twice silently steals the opening scene), along with Hermia (Jenny Leona), Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet), Lysander (Tom Pecinka), and Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson), and Hermia’s father, Egeus (Robert Hannon Davis) all use verse, and all have set-piece speeches, filled with glorious imagery.
In the fairy world, Queen Titania (Scarlett Strallen) and King Oberon (Esau Pritchett) are involved in an overblown quarrel that threatens to destroy the planet, but their poetry remains exquisite. Puck, Oberon’s assistant (a nicely restrained and mysterious Will Apicella) also speaks in lovely verse, though he, too, creates quite a bit of havoc amongst the young lovers who have fled to the woods to escape being wed against their will.
Set against both these worlds of genuine conflict, love, and pain, are the Rude Mechanicals: workingmen of the town who are rehearsing a play to celebrate the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. These characters speak in prose and are meant to create the broadest humor of the piece, as opposed to the more subtle and delicate comedy woven throughout the lovers’ mistaken identities.
So we expect the Rude Mechanicals to provide absurdly farcical comedy, but these Rude Mechanicals have been directed to go so over-the-top that their humor is lost in bizarre posturing and relentless yelling, especially in the case of John Lavelle as Nick Bottom. More disturbingly, we also see Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander made to appear antic and preposterous. They have been directed to visually illustrate nearly every word or image, and to throw themselves around the stage as if they were three year olds, rather than young adults in love.
Distractingly, too, the lovers are dressed in school uniforms: ties, white shirts, pleated skirts, and jackets for the young women; and short pants, ties, and white shirts for the young men. Since Hermia’s father opens the play by demanding that Hermia wed Demetrius, the man she does not love, we expect them all to be at least eighteen or twenty, and a line refers to a time when Helena was back in school. So what are these school uniforms supposed to tell us? We know, from “Romeo and Juliet,” that in Shakespeare’s time, young people of thirteen or fourteen were thought ripe for marriage. But this version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” appears to be set in the 1940’s (though the time period is never entirely clear), so the lovers’ costumes and childlike behavior are puzzling, to say the least.
The most frustrating element of all is the sense of what a terrific production this might have been, given the wealth of talent and resources so abundantly apparent on the stage. Every one of the misdirected actors is obviously charismatic, technically brilliant, and well cast. Visually, the production is exquisite. Tresnjak and Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge have found inspiration in the grand gatehouses of the South, and their construction of the main house to divide the realistic and civilized from the supernatural and uncontrolled is stunning.
And while Joshua Perkins’s costumes for the lovers and Mechanicals are either confusing, or ludicrous, or both, Theseus, Hippolyta, Titania, Oberon, and Puck are dressed gorgeously. York Kennedy’s Lighting Design and the haunting Sound Design of Broken Chord create the magic that one always hopes for in productions of this play.
Ultimately, though, one can’t avoid the conclusion that as a director of actors and of text, Tresnjak either doesn’t trust his audience to appreciate subtlety, or he is saying that all humans (“mortals”), including us, are beyond hope. Either way, this “Midsummer Night’s Dream” belies his own Director’s notes, in which he quotes G.K. Chesterton as writing, “In pure poetry and intoxication of words, Shakespeare never rose higher than this play.” Due to the two and a half hours of mostly shouting, you won’t be able to make out many of those words, or the emotions behind them, here.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” continues performances at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through October 8, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.