Let’s start at the start: I have been waiting for quite literally years for someone to make the obvious Anne Hathaway jokes. And yet they always fail to materialise – until today, when I finally got to see not only a joke on the matter, but an extended one. For this performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is being performed, not at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, but of that of our old friend the red-velvet-jacketed, green-faced Shakey-Shake to his lovely bride Anne Hathaway. The modern-day Anne Hathaway, that is, fresh from her triumph in Les Misérables. Who does indeed at one moment warblingly remind Shakey-Shake that ‘You wrote the Dream in times gone by…’ All that was missing was a Susan Boyle joke. We had to make do with the Rob Ford ones instead.
The avowed intent of Shakey-Shake and Friends founder Tom McGee is to get children interested in the stories of Shakespeare’s plays before they meet him anywhere else, to keep them from being scared off or bored, and the more I see of these puppet plays, whether last year’s The Tempest… A Puppet Epic or this year’s Rovero & Juliet by the Manipulators, the more I am convinced that they have hit on exactly the right formula. Children in the audience are clearly entranced; move them from this to Susan Herbert’s Shakespeare Cats, to the Animated Shakespeare Series, to the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare, to performances of some of the actual plays, and they will be ready to face the dreary days of overanalysing Romeo and Juliet in high school secure in the knowledge that the plays are actually fun.
Once again we are faced with the multiple levels of this performance, with actors both manipulating the puppets and acting the puppets’ roles, even as these puppets play Shakespeare, however much they may continually interrupt one another. This allows them to make sure the young audience is following, not to mention comment on the play’s foibles. I’m not sure I’d ever noticed how often this happens before, but it is rather convenient how people keep falling asleep at just the right moment. And how oddly specific a plant that gets rid of love potions is. And the plots and plans, particularly Oberon’s, are indeed rather convoluted. It’s nice to have this pointed out. (As pranks go, of course, it’s understood that Oberon and Puck have been up to all sort of things before. ‘Remember when we drew an angry face on a pillow and got it elected Mayor?’ stands as one of the most appreciated lines, at least for Torontonians.)
Drama is added to this production of the Dream by the fact that the puppet company’s diva, Lucy, who’s playing Hermia, is feeling extremely threatened by the presence of Anne Hathaway. To be fair, the latter isn’t helping matters, constantly reminding everybody of all the films she’s been in. Anne herself plays Titania, while Shakey-Shake takes on Oberon, with young Zip as his Puck. The puppets’ company is really a bit typecast – last year those two played Prospero and Ariel.
The problem with adapting Dream for children is simple – there are too many stories going on. McGee manages to keep the major elements while paring the whole thing down, from having Dream itself be the play presented at the wedding, thus eliminating the need for the Mechanicals’ subplot, to removing the Theseus/Hippolyta frame and Egeon. The matter of Demetrius’s switched affections is also made comprehensible: he only dumped Helena because Daddy told him to, as it will help them get ahead in business. And much as the Lambs dealt with the necessity of finding an excuse for Bottom to be in the woods by simply announcing that a foolish villager had fallen asleep within the forest’s confines, here we had Marlowe, the World’s Greatest Actor (according to himself, naturally), who even gets to give us Bottom’s desire to play every role – but for the Dream.
I must admit I am very glad that I was able to see The Tempest…A Puppet Epic last year, as it allowed me to catch a number of inside jokes that only those in the know would quite get – the return of Trunkulo as a group of Trunk Fairies chief among them. In fact, half the pleasure was in rediscovering characters from last year; I shall try to avoid repeating myself too much here, and recommend that people read last year’s review if they are intrigued enough to wish to know more. However, I admit I was a bit worried at times that there might be a few too many inside jokes. The constant laughter from the audience suggests that either everyone was in on them, or that it didn’t matter, but there was a certain sense of ‘You had to be there’. For instance, I don’t know why the company has such affection for the line ‘But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?’ from Romeo and Juliet, but it was incorporated into The Tempest and returned this year as well – ‘But soft! What sprite through yonder central aisle breaks?’ as Puck returns with the flower.
That minor quibble aside, this is an extremely fine, fun and boisterous production. I was left curious about the decision to suddenly bring in an element of set decoration at the end, having had the entire play presented on a bare stage before then, but it brought a nice touch of colour. The little details throughout are wonderful – particularly the Trunk Fairies, and Helena literally being dragged behind Demetrius, refusing to let go of his leg. There is also a great deal of actual Shakespeare mixed in with the text; the transition between blank verse and simplified text and pop culture references are almost always seamless. And my, what fun those references are. I remain uncertain about my favourite moment – the Hermia/Helena quarrel, with Helena’s vituperative ‘You puppet!’ of course included, follow by a brief interruption of the action for it to be pointed out that those words are indeed in the original, line and scene reference provided, or Puck deceiving Lysander and Demetrius in their fight, and Demetrius’s ‘In the immortal words of Gandhi: Challenge accepted!’ On reflection, I think this last stands as the highlight.
Unlike in traditional puppet shows, the performers are visible at all times, and their ability to manipulate their puppets, physicalise the roles themselves, and speak the lines while keeping each puppet’s personality intact, is quite remarkable. Congratulations also to the performer (whom I did identify, incidentally) who had hurt her back and yet went through with the production. And the whole cast gave a fine chorus when the play (of course) ended with a rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ reworded to suit the plot. I don’t especially like the song, but it was nicely done.
McGee has suggested that, given the popularity of Shakey-Shake and Friends, he would like to stretch their wings a little next year, and take on something more challenging than the well-known plays they’ve so far paid attention to. One can only hope their names come out of the lottery next year and that we’ll be treated to Titus Andronicus…The Puppet Epic. Or perhaps Measure for Measure. Either way, I suspect the immortal words of Gandhi will ring in McGee and his company’s ears.