This year’s CanStage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at High Park, directed by Ahdri Zhina Mandiela, is a heavily, but deftly cut adaptation with a strong Caribbean flavor. Clocking in at just one hour and thirty minutes, the play has been stripped to its bare essentials, but the text that is left contributes to a quickly paced, lively production that is especially well-suited for folk looking to get their Shakespeare feet wet without being overwhelmed by language or plot.
The set is simple, but highly functional, with two platform levels connected by semi-circular staircases on either side. The staircase is fronted by a series of vertical metal poles which serve as hints of walls when in Athens, and are reminiscent of bamboo and tree trunks in the forest. The front of the upper platform is similarly grated, but with two large doors that open and close. These doors have a further set of smaller doors in the lower level, which provide a simple, yet creative way to vary an otherwise bare stage. Additional props and stage dressing are kept to a minimum, except for the use of cheerful, colored lights, a collection of tall leaves imprinted with text to serve as the jungle, and some gold hoops placed under the upper platform to suggest Titania’s magical lair.
The actors do sometimes get lost in the enormity of the stage, but for the most part acquit themselves well. Kevin Hanchard’s Oberon and Karen Robinson’s Titania bring a strong Caribbean sound to their roles, much like David Harewood and Adjoa Andoh in the recent Arkangel audio editions of the play. Former Cirque du Soleil performer Colin Heath is a decidedly acrobatic and energetic Puck. Of the mechanicals, Matthew Kabwe’s Bottom is not so well-paced, but Steven Gallagher’s Quince is suitably officious and Emberly Doherty awkwardly adorable as the reticent Snug. The role of Egeus is here cast as a woman of the golf-playing, clubhouse type, and this switch generally works well, with parallel concerns for maintaining social class helping to soften the severity of Egeus’ demands.
There is no doubt the actors are having a great time onstage, though the edges frequently unravel whenever they have trouble keeping pace. Even with microphones, some of the characters are difficult to hear, in some cases due to the sound system cutting out and in because the actors lack the basic lung power to project sufficiently. This is especially true of the higher pitched characters, such as Holly Lewis’ Hermia. and Maev Beaty’s frenetic, yoga practicing Helena whose fast pacing often outruns lung capacity. Part of the problem seems to be inexperience with outdoor theatre, and this is compounded by the sheer size of the stage, which actors sometimes lack the confidence and power to fill sufficiently.
One of the more interesting choices, however, is the casting of Antonio Cayonne, a Toronto spoken word poet, as Lysander. Cayonne approaches the text in a novel way, breaking it down and deconstructing it, turning his declarations of love into discombobulated hip-hop rhythms of repetition and strategic stuttering. The result is a cross between a tongue-tied lover and sophisticated, enticing poet, though Cayonne sometimes lacks the basic acting chops to sell the latter. He would have a much easier time selling the word play to the audience if he brought more confidence to the first half of the play, when the style is being introduced. It’s a fascinating idea, but doesn’t yet fulfill its potential.
Much of the joyfulness of this production is conveyed through costume, which appears to be a cross between urban funk and Caribana pageantry. Many of the Athenians are dressed in simple, modern outfits made of, or containing, white cotton, which evokes the traditional white toga associated with Athens. The mechanicals are suitably mismatched in brightly colored plaids and patches. Titania and Oberon appear in a series of costumes, each one more flamboyant than the next. Oberon’s giant peacock style pantsuit is made from giant leaves like those that dress the set, while Titania’s brilliantly colored patchwork dress carries an enormous train, and her gold gown with gold wire hoops attached to the back serve as wings. The fairies are a trio of hip-hop hippies, dressed in neon pinks and yellows and torn up denim.
Overall, this is a family friendly production and a solid introduction to Shakespeare. Though a bit thin on the performance side, the audience is never bored and it’s a lovely way to spend a midsummer night.