22 February 2004: Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Directed by Martha Clarke

A sign in a Route 9 men’s shop (I am informed by an interview in the Sunday Boston Globe magazine) declares, “It’s okay to look GOOD!” This message has not gotten across the Charles to Cambridge just yet, nor is it likely to arrive there in the foreseeable future. Martha Clarke’s production of MND is clothed resolutely in drab. And the stage comes as close to the raked-level indifferentiation of a razed-building lot as I have seen anywhere. It makes the set of Waiting for Godot, with its single bare tree, look sumptuous by comparison. Actually, there are three holes in the ground, with inter-communicating subterranean passages, used exclus­ively by Puck — who in this production is predominantly the rural scapegrace Robin Goodfellow; when he puts a girdle around the globe in forty minutes, he goes underground and, presumably, tunnels his way. The costumes are the kind of faux-Victorian cast-offs you might find in a consignment shop, and Theseus / Oberon himself (John Campion) has a great head of unkempt, scraggly hair that we might associate with a homeless beggar panhandling outside Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square. Even the top hat he wears looks like a dust-bin original. Gustav Doré is the real designer of these down-and-out costumes; Robert Israel, credited in the program for set and costumes, is only the adapter. What we have, in short, is a MND seen through an unexceptionably grungy lens, a vision of Shakespeare’s characters as members of the Legion of the Great Unwashed.

Of course, the audience, composed predominantly of junior and senior prep school students, “related” to it with no difficulty at all. In fact, they loved it, especially the scenes with the four young lovers. When Lysander, victim of magic flower juice, calls Hermia a “dwarf,” there was a huge audible “Eeeooo” from these much-engaged kids. A young black girl in front of us reacted quite strongly to the hurled epithet “Ethiope.”

Meanwhile, I found myself getting into my “Shakespeare as barometer” frame of mind, deciding that some productions, this one included, of old familiar classics tell us much more about the cultural moment in which they appear than they do about the play itself — at the moment in which it appeared. The two program essays were, in this respect, noble efforts at irrelevancy. Gideon Lester, the ART dramaturg, gave us a perfectly intelligent piece of commentary on the high profile of subjectivity in the play, underlying a play-long concern with ambivalence. Emily Otto, a first-year student of dramaturgy in the ART Institute, wrote clearly and well about theories of whether MND was written on the occasion of a royal wedding and siding with Gary Jay Williams who in his splendid stage history Our Moonlight Revels argues that the play is much too subversive of patriarchal authority to have been appropriate for the celebration of an arranged marriage. Interesting, all of this, but completely beside the point of the production, whose message was that dirt lives.

Clarke seems to have wanted to deflect our minds from getting too bogged down in detritus, however, to judge from the fact that she moved the first umpteen lines of Theseus’s Act V oration, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet” from its usual point in the text to the very beginning of the play, spoken by Theseus slouched in a thread-bare, overstuffed chair, in near darkness. Was there unintended irony in this? Positioned at this initial point, the speech announces, or would seem to announce, a programmatic approach to the play. But the word “imagination” in this speech doesn’t mean what we now mean by it; it refers to the tendency of persons under the impress of strong irrational forces to misper­ceive the information about the world taken in by the eyes. That would seem to identify the theme of subjectivity seemingly tipped off by Lester’s program essay. And, of course, playing out the text you get a certain inevitable quantum of such. But somehow that didn’t seem to be what this production was about.

What was it about? Is there a hint in the way Clarke managed the character of Theseus and his unwilling, resistant consort Hyppolita? She cannot stand to have Theseus touch her, let alone kiss her, and she is still completely not in the vein at the end of the play, where a sad, despairing Theseus watches her walk off the stage alone; no witching time for her, indeed. In fact, this Theseus is very uncomfortable with his authority and is glad for the chance to countermand, finally, Egeus’s insistence on “the law of Athens.” Theseus’s transformation into Oberon is nothing more than the transparent one of leaving his top hat off stage. Hyppolita leaves off her somber black short jacket, revealing a low-cut, V-neck white top, above a fulsome tulle skirt, and she seems to get a certain pleasure from her dreamy acquisition of an ass-headed lover (Thomas Darrah’s terribly mannered, early-film-comedy Bottom had a style of its own that was utterly foreign to everything else in the play). But there was little if any joy here. Nor were there any signs of spring, let alone dreams of mid-summer. A more deracinated production of this play, severed from both its historical groundings and its ethnic and seasonal links, would be hard to imagine.

But then there were the flying fairies. I really loved them. The credit in the program reads “Flying by Foy.” The program is quite silent on who “Foy” is. Whoever he or she is, Foy is very, very good at this work. Three or four lithe yet shapely actresses were garbed in neutral-colored (of course) close-fitting tops and flowing skirts, with the flying apparatus secured somehow, invisibly, at the waist, with parallel flying lines disappearing up in the flies, the mechanism controlled by stagehands off left (but visible in the semi-darkness). This allowed the fairies to sweep on, up, down, and out, in long, extremely graceful arcs, and, as they moved, to have their bodies and limbs completely free and to turn, tumble, and twist at will. And, in Act V, in the “Piramus and Thisbe” sequence, Tom Snout, playing the moon, was suspended horizontally on wires above the proceedings – while Peter Quince at the “clavier” (a honky-tonk piano — surely not what Wallace Stevens had in mind in his poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier”) played the opening movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata. These long, sweeping fairy movements were irresistibly attractive.

And they showed what you can do if you just allow yourself to rely confid­ently on the magic of the physical theatre. I came out of this production feeling thankful for the small favor of a truly funny “Piramus and Thisbe” and the much larger favor conferred on the occasion by “Foy,” and not much else. Superstar regisseurs don’t earn their expensive keep by subordinating their considerable egos to the depths and intricacies of a complex dramatic text. Nor, in the grip of a powerful interpretive illusion, a bush-into-bear act of ”imagination,” do they always have time to coach their actors on how to speak Shakespeare’s verse (if they themselves know how). I found myself grumbling over this lack also, on exit, knowing it is a nearly irremediable defect in American actor training. “Nothing to be done,” as a well-known character might say. But I found myself thinking nonetheless that what we now need, in Shakespearean production, is the equivalent of Granville Barker’s 1910 production of MND, which brought a brand-new stylistic “take,” visually beautiful and profoundly strange, to bear on a stage realism worn to a frazzle by Beerbohm Tree. (Gary Williams’s book on the stage history is well worth reading on this subject.) Would that some clear-sighted director could decide that the kind of thing Clarke has mounted on the ART stage is nothing more than a craven obeisance to the dregs of postmodern­ism and that something newly, richly, and strangely definitive of our distance from 1596, and yet our deep connection with that age and moment, is what we are most in need of.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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