Usually, when a critic says he felt like he was watching a different play, it’s a negative. The cast or the director missed something vital, a production concept or interpretation was fundamentally flawed…the play was not the play. As I learned in my interview with him, however, director James Rutherford would probably delight in such a comment. His stated goal was to try his best, at every turn, to ignore the production history and traditional trappings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream while working on his mounting - which took the stage at Riverside Theater January 26th-29th - to take the text at its word and not rely on the images we traditionally associate with the play. What emerges is sometimes funny, but often frightening, harrowing, and deeply affecting. So here you go, James: I felt like I was watching a different play. And I loved (most of) it.
Most of it. Rape is a strong choice for the very beginning of a play, but we open with the slightly-more-than-implied rape of Hippolyta (Katie Meister, who doubles as Titania) by Theseus (Tom O’Keefe, who doubles as Oberon). It immediately brings to mind both dramaturgical questions (how does one rape an Amazon warrior queen without completely incapacitating her and sustaining considerable injury oneself?) and dramatic ones (where do we go from here?). It makes us really dislike Theseus and, what’s worse, sets a tone right at the top of the show that is almost immediately abandoned.
Most of it. Piehole, the puppeteers and performers that worked with Mr. Rutherford, created a piece of multimedia theater based on Pyramus and Thisbe that replaces the performance by Peter Quince, Bottom, and the rest. It is beautiful. I can’t emphasize enough that it is a wonderful piece of theater on its own. Nestled into a production of a different play, however, it is a jarring tonal and stylistic shift, as well as overly long.
Most of it. The Rude Mechanicals are all skilled, funny, energetic, and engaging (especially Patrick Harrison as Bottom). But for a production so dedicated to risk and re-envisioning, these were the exact same Mechanicals we get in every other version of this play.
There are worse sins than these, I suppose, and the rest of the production was so thoroughly engrossing that I often felt like I was hearing this play for the first time – the fresh approach to the text had me laughing from genuine surprise, for example, when Titania woke up in her bower to find Bottom, ass-head newly fixed to his shoulders, rather than mere recognition. The fairy world is dark, but not in a way that seems forced – theirs is a world of immense power. There is real love and history in the relationship between Titania and Oberon, and so his jealousy and her devotion to her handmaiden are as apparent as the dull pain she feels at their estrangement. Oberon’s interest in the mortals who enter his forest is borne not of mischief but from a real pity and concern for Helena’s plight. Puck (Jeremy Pickard), though athletic and often spritely as he is usually portrayed, is also much more sinister; after all, the trouble he causes in the play isn’t trivial: he nearly ruins a woman’s life, leaves a man to live the rest of his life bewitched, and takes measures to ensure that Titania’s enchantment turns out as humiliating as possible by creating a monster and placing it in her path. The delight this Puck takes in watching mortals caught in a downward spiral, bound by their weaknesses, is more akin to an Iago than a mischievous fairy. The fairies Piehole created are built from household tools, and so are sharp, metallic, imposing to mere mortals at first glance though ultimately harmless and eager to please. The magic of this Midsummer is never cute, and the consequences of the conflict distracting Oberon and Titania from keeping things under control are not either.
The differences in this production are, naturally, nowhere more apparent than in the lovers. Their scenes, though often funny, are never played specifically for laughs. Gone is the slapstick and broad caricature usually associated with the play, replaced with a cast that is willing at every turn to take the script at its word. Once again, the relationships and characters are well drawn, where so often the characters are nearly interchangeable. Lysander (Nick Dillenburg) and Hermia (Margaret Odette) have a fantastic rapport. Helena (Emily Gleeson) is clearly a young woman consumed with jealousy and a measure of self-loathing, and might even be a bit imbalanced because of it – her scenes with Demetrius show us a Helena that is desperate for approval and affection, even to her own detriment. This is aided by a Demetrius (Federico Rodriguez) who doesn’t throw away his threats of rape and murder as if he hopes the audience doesn’t notice them.
The scene where both men fall for Helena is triumphant because Rutherford gives the characters all the credit of being real people with real emotions. Far from the usual catfight and consequence-free scuffle, we see Hermia not only losing the one she loves inexplicably, but so totally that he claims to hate her – really hate her - and treats her accordingly. Helena begins the scene experiencing what she believes to be the worst kind of bullying, but as the miraculous reality of the situation begins to dawn on her – that she has not only traded places with the object of her jealousy but surpassed her – she owns it completely, gloating over her former friend and pulling no punches. I was literally on the edge of my seat. The somewhat uncomfortable laughter in the audience came from knowing that this was something we were supposed to laugh at…right? And yet what was unfolding was not funny at all – amidst the beautiful visuals and gracefully choreographed, stylized fighting, four young people were hitting rock bottom just before the moment of their release.
Similarly, the play’s final moment after curtain call – Demetrius, in his wedding tuxedo, purple love-juice still staining his face, staring dead-eyed into the audience as his appointed love clings to his arm just a bit too adoringly – addresses the problem of Demetrius’s enchanted love of Helena where so many other productions merely ignore it.
I have nothing against traditional productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the play has a rich performance history, is one of the Bard’s more accessible works, and is a crowd pleaser every time. And hey, I love slapstick comedy as much as the next guy. James Rutherford’s production, however, serves as a reminder of the possibilities in producing Shakespeare. There is richness to be explored even in texts that are taken for granted, a richness that does not require imposed concepts and contemporary updates to tackle. As Rutherford demonstrates, it is best to leave assumptions, preconceptions, and audience expectation at the door when approaching a work.
Romeo and Juliet next, please?