review

Just a comedy? Production review on an ’80s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“Stereotypical high-school-like styling may fit the ’80s TV and pop cultural tradition, yet to some extent turns out to devalue the essence of Shakespearean plays, which is, mercy.”

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dance at the wedding, credit: Turek

Providence Trinity Repertory Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an updated version of the Shakespearian play. Prior to the performance, the speaker announces that everyone is in a 1986 school auditorium and gives a friendly reminder to turn off mobile devices. Lights on, the audience can see glittery multicolored tassel curtains on each side of the exit and entrance, colorful balloons hanging above the central stairs, and confetti on the floor—a prom, instead of the historic moment of Athenian victory. Performers enter to the ’80s music played by a rock band. Humor and the ’80s visual and musical elements take the stage throughout the production. Despite all the “ha-ha” moments, this popularized version flamboyantly and reducibly interferes with the original intention of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

Theseus and Hippolyta, dressed up as neither Duke of Athens nor Queen of the Amazons, but as the principle in a suit and tie and a PE teacher with a whistle and sneakers, oversee the venue on the balcony. All other mortal characters from the two couples to the metatheatrical crew descend the central stairs holding signs of high school stereotypes, such as “cutest couple” for curly-blonde-hair Hermia and Lysander, and “most likely to succeed” for glasses-clad Demetrius and suspicious-looking brim-hat wearer Helena. Egeus, Hermia’s father, displeased to see Hermia and Lysander indulgent in dancing and kissing on the balcony, interrupts the happy moment and asks Theseus to witness his decent arrangement of Hermia and Demetrius’ marriage. When Hermia disobeys his father’s order, all other prom-goers applaud and cheer, but are subdued by the squeaking sound of Hippolyta’s whistle—the authority’s device to maintain order. Using high school stereotypes is a smart move to introduce the characters’ identities, from which the audience can expect the actors to perform based on a certain decorum. This choice makes the performance comical, but at the same time soap-opera-like.

Lysander and Hermia resume their secret teenage love affair alone onstage. Upon his proposal, Lysander runs above the level of the band and starts to sing “All I Need Is You” to Hermia on the floor, like two lovers involved in a Disney musical. Suddenly Helena who spies on the couple in the dark drops a drum stick and cuts off the music. On-and-off involvement of the band in the corner makes the performance a metatheatrical experience, as if the audience are watching the production process of a sit-com instead of an actual play. Helena’s monolog captures the expected brooding of a love-stricken girl. “Dear diary,” she pulls out a blue notebook and feather-adorned pen. Then comes her revenge to tell Demetrius about the cutest couple’s tryst in the woods. Although it is comical seeing through the characters’ young eyes of their love-hate struggles, portraying the entangled lovers as high school students oversimplifies their experience and identity construction.

Shifting identities of characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are also captured in the play-within-a-play, when the goofballs enter for the acting rehearsal of “Pyramus and Thisbe” scheduled on the Duke’s wedding ceremony. They constantly get into arguments about who should play who, especially Bottom, the claimed “class clown” in the first scene, who has “Nick Bottom” on his baseball jacket and runs around with exaggerated “bad acting”. After the tiring arrangement, they sing “We Belong Together”. String lights attached to the balcony rail glow in flower made of paper plates. The production’s song choices evoke cheerful memories of the ’80s, creating an inviting environment for the community.

The tech choice for location changes is simplified to resemble an unrefined high school production, conveyed by hand-written signs on the back of two sets of audience chairs. Fairies and Puck enter to scroll the chairs around, which read “We are now in the woods. Roar.” Puck’s abrupt entrance on hot-pink roller skates disrupts the celestial dreaminess of the woods. Fiery orange hair, heavy eye makeup, a multi-colored tutu, and fishnet leggings, her appearance strongly contrasts with the suit- and uniform-clad school, and sheds an ominous shadow. Oberon in a black-leather Elvis Presley look enters from the balcony corner playing bass. Titania in a red maxi dress takes the central stairs with nobility. Aloofness and conflict smolder between them. The King’s and Queen’s appearances look out of sync. They both look like stars in the ’80s, but in utterly different styles. Sadly, with all her refined vibe and gestures, Titania does not fit in with the rest of the cast in this production’s 80s motif.

The sequence of the plot is slightly adjusted from the original script. Similar to a film or TV series, snippets of events in the mortal world, in the spiritual world, and in the metatheater, are cut and mixed together. This form breaks away from the theater and mimics the experience of watching popular media. For instance, (in the scene where///) right after Oberon demands that Puck find a purple flower to enchant lovers, Helena stalks Demetrius with a polaroid camera into the woods. Only after the lovers’ struggle do Oberon and Puck enter again exchanging the flower and a hair spray bottle in a manner of magic tricks. The flower and the “juice” bottle look like cheap props available at a dollar store, but may be the closest to fit the vibe of this production. When fairies, played by children, enter and sing “All through the night” a flowery bed which Titania rests on sends her underneath the floor. The cheap set disrupts the expected sense of mystery of the play. The Queen also is left alone as a side character whose rare appearance is downplayed as an unimportant side role to the amusing farcical theme of the production. From there the performance shifts from the fairy world into the mortal world.

Hermia and Lysander in army green outfits wander into the woods with a map and camping backpacks—a secret teenage night-out to avoid parents. Puck roller-skate above them to spray the juice on their bodies for the magic, and on hers for mere glitz and glam. Then Quince in a boy scout uniform rides a bike in with his crew running. Their efforts to find the characters are rather comic. The slow Lion resembles an old man of dementia. Moonshine, played by a girl with a high ponytail and braces across her face, uses the flashlight as the moon. After Oberon’s assification of Bottom, the giant donkey head seriously appalls the team into screaming and escaping. Puck sits on the stairs, watching their antics while laughing and enjoying popcorn. The Queen rises from underground to fall victim to Oberon’s prank, falls in love with the Donkey, asks the fairies to serve him, and will lovingly purge his “mortal grossness”. While the band music finishes this Act, as a flashback, the scared rehearsal team are still running and screaming on the upper level of the theater, reminiscent of a Bob’s Burgers type of humor. Here we see the form of TV drama meets theater onstage, where amusing scenes are multiplied and repeated for additional comical effects.

Another broken scene cuts in, only now does Puck’s prank take effect, making Lysander fall in love with Helena, and Demetrius with Hermia. Rejected, Demetrius begins a monologue in some bad rap, “when you’re alone in your room,” something hilarious that a teenage boy would do and a throwback to’80s rap. Identity shifts take place after the lovers are hypnotized and enchanted by Oberon, the magic trick turns Demetrius into a more masculine figure in a white muscle vest and a stronger tone. Instead, Lysander becomes feminized, unable to keep his vow for Hermia, and falls in love with Helena. The four chase one another and get stuck in the audience. The fight and the music are turned into slow motion in dim red light. Puck smirks at the planned farce, and signals the audience to yell “Hermia, go!” As the four become so disheveled and exhausted, Oberon casts night over the love-rivals, hypnotizes them one by one. Juice is used again to drive them out of derision. The center stage rises with Titania and Donkey in briefs in bed. Oberon brings Titania back from the fruitless fantasy, making her sick of the Donkey. Although being a clown, Bottom is not given enough sympathy in the performance, but merely portrayed as a busy character jumping around for silly effects instead of having rich emotions having been through ups and downs.

Chairs are turned around to show “We are back at the dance.” The band plays “Hey Mickey” in a march rhythm when the crowd gathers for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, where Theseus approves of “these fairy lovers”. The fairies’ chorus then sing “How will I know love’s just a deceiving feeling.” The acting crew dance to the song “Dance when there’s nothing” played from a cassette player. Quince wears a silver tassel cape, and begins B-boxing, coughing and nearly choking himself. Moonshine wears a pink leotard with a moon and stars patchwork. She tries too hard and vomits. Flute turns from a nerd into a transvestite as Thisbe. In the struggling affair of Pyramus and Thisbe, Pyramus or Bottom tries to die ten times yelling “I die” until he figuratively cuts off his tongue. Thisbe then kills herself many times with a sword under her arm and pokes the balloons for breasts. The production still looks like an underprepared rehearsal and or a flashy costume party. Oberon and Titania make up. Four pairs of lovers are fulfilled. Puck and spirits dance under the disco ball when a generous amount of confetti falls from above. The happy ending is a triumph of the passion over absolute reason.

There is some critique (There are some negative aspects of) to the production’s specification of the ’80s high school set and overemphasis of comical effects. The scene design is symbolic, simplistic, and inexpensive: balloons and confetti stand for the school prom, string lights and paper plate flowers for the woods. Since the character designs are rather realistic, the performance requires audience’s extra imagination to associate it with older versions of this Shakespearian play (?). Having children play the fairies in colorful bob-head wigs and toy-like wings adds a sense of fantasy and purity. But their singing is incongruous with a particularly squeaky girl voice. The downplay of the fantastical beauty of Titania who is overshadowed by the worldly chase of the high schoolers’ drama can be a disappointment.

The success of this production lies in its family-friendly humor and community engagement. This production is a brave and different move in terms of the set, costume, lighting, and music design from past versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream produced by Trinity Rep. It might be amusing and relaxing that somber moments are made comical, but when the comedy versus tragedy distinction is too obvious, actions that need sympathy are playfully transformed into jokes. There needs to be more room for brooding. The flashy ’80s costumes and excessive acting by hyper-energetic comedic roles, such as that of Bottom, Puck, or the four teen lovers chasing after one another between seats, can be exhausting to the audience. Tragic moments of the mortals’ misery and suffering are downplayed in the performance. Bottom, for example, is portrayed as a heartless buffoon marked by incessant talking and jumping around, and displays no difference before, during, and after his tragic assification. Stereotypical high-school-like styling may fit the ’80s TV and pop cultural tradition, yet to some extent turns out to devalue the essence of Shakespearean plays, which is, mercy.

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