James Rutherford does not do concept by halves. When he was a directing student at Brown University, his production of Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies involved releasing 40,000 fruit flies into the house to realize the plague afflicting Argos. Now at Columbia, he has put together a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that promises to cast the beloved romp through the Athenian countryside in a new light. PlayShakespeare.com spoke to Mr. Rutherford about his plans.
So why Midsummer? It is one of Shakespeare’s most often produced plays and, well, it is the dead of winter...
Its being so widely produced is why I was interested in doing it. I’m interested in his comedies because I’ve found there’s a lot of really profound negativity in them that is so rarely explored. I feel like all of his plays are best classified as “problem plays.” Some of them—Midsummer and Twelfth Night are probably some of the biggest examples—are, on a certain level, so easy to produce so well, you know? They’re so fun, they’re so fast, they’re so energetic that it’s so easy to gloss over some of the really alarming things that are in the language.
So for me the project here is to really take the language at face value, as if it had never been produced, and really look at what it means when a woman—take Helena, for example—when she follows Demetrius into the woods and he says, like, “Stop following me, I’ll beat you, I might murder you, I might rape you if you don’t stop following me.” She gets down on her knees and says, “Let me be your spaniel. The more you beat me I will fawn on you.” And it’s sort of alarming to me that that usually gets a laugh. That’s part of Shakespeare’s genius to me is that there are these moments that are very, very funny but that are, you know, part of the comedy in it is something very, very uncomfortable. These ideas are not new ideas by any stretch of the imagination, but they so rarely make it into performance because the comedy and the lightness of it is so seductive.
How does the magical world factor into this?
The fairy world is kind of grittier, it’s kind of an alarming—the aesthetic is less spangly and charming and enchanting and more grim. There’s a group of downtown puppeteers by the name of Piehole, they’re an experimental theater troupe. They play the Rude Mechanicals, and they’ve devised a Pyramus and Thisbe that is based on Shakespeare, that is based on Ovid, but is really more of a new piece and they’ve also created a number of puppets that represent the fairies. They’re kind of these strange sort of tool-like things, metallic. One of them is one of those old-fashioned rotary drills, that they’ve modified. We’re trying to de-mystify the play as much as possible.
Can you tell us a little more about your collaboration with Piehole?
I knew them before, we went to college together, we’d worked together before and I’ve always respected their work. I really gave them carte blanche as far as the play-within-the-play, and they sort of took the first pass at their mechanical scenes even before I directed them. The idea behind it was that, what the Mechanicals are, is a downtown theatre troupe. They can’t afford rehearsal space so they’re rehearsing in the woods. That’s the correct energy, that’s what the play-within-the-play is about. All the jokes are jokes Shakespeare was making about his company: actors complaining about always playing women, so on and so on. Basically I realized that if I were just to cast a bunch of strangers and then make up a play-within-a-play, it’s not the correct energy. It would be a lie. Shakespeare wrote it for a bunch of people that he knew, and that he was going to have fun making fun [of], so it’s so personal, and there’s such unity, that it’d be faking it any other way.
How do you feel that the themes you’re trying to explore are reflected in your design?
It’s a little tricky. “De-Mystify” is perhaps not the best word. We’re trying to look at it with fresh eyes. When we think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream we think of glittery fairies and the like. But the set for this play is this mound of earth that dominates the stage, but it’s hollow. It basically functions like a giant puppet. The fairies pop through it, hands can reach through, parts of it move, the thing breathes. The design is trying to ignore the performance history of the play and really just listen to what the language suggests: a world where you don’t know what is what, so you can’t…there’s a line that Theseus has that says imagination can do amazing things, that it can make a bush look like a bear, and that’s kind of the idea behind the aesthetic. It’s a dream-logic. We’re looking at things and we don’t exactly know what they are, we don’t exactly know how they function, what they’re capable of. That goes for physical objects—the scenery, the puppets—but it’s also true for the people involved. These four lovers go into the woods, and they think they know each other, and it’s revealed throughout the course of the play that they’re completely different.
How has pursuing your MFA in directing affected your relationship with Shakespeare specifically and theatre in general?
I’ve been studying Shakespeare from a very young age. I did my first production of Macbeth when I was about nineteen—it was the first play I ever did. In high school, I ushered at Shakespeare in the Park. It’s something that’s always stayed with me. I did Shakespeare a lot in college but it wasn’t until last spring that I got to do Shakespeare again in graduate school. Graduate school is an interesting place, especially Columbia, because you gain, just, an enormous amount of practice on very difficult material. The pedagogy is definitely there, but, especially at Columbia, it is about working constantly and failing constantly. I think, for me, working through Chekhov for the first time, Goethe for the first time, which is, you know, very humbling material that I was not super familiar with going into graduate school. it was then very exciting for me to be able to return to Shakespeare and to be able to be so bold, having the personal experience combined with the insight that a few years of graduate school gives you.
It provides an insight into Shakespeare because he invented so many things that you encounter again and again and again, like when you read Chekhov and you realize that Uncle Vanya is really just an adaptation of Twelfth Night—like, character by character it breaks itself down, it’s extraordinary. When you read Faust, and you see that it is, on many levels, Hamlet. I think working so deeply on many of these other playwrights and seeing how deeply they are influenced by Shakespeare gives a further insight. You mentioned my production of The Flies. The Flies is the Oresteia, but it’s very much a post-Hamlet Oresteia. Hamlet was based on Orestes, and now you have an Orestes that’s based on Hamlet. That’s sort of what theater is about on one level: the tradition vanishes as it happens, but it also keeps going. This Dream is a reaction to ideas because so little can be quoted or cited about past performances. Who among us has seen Brooks’s Midsummer Night’s Dream? Video is such a poor substitute for the original. But at the same time Brooks’s Midsummer resonates so much. We talk about it so much. Same with Max Reinhardt’s. All of this performance history accumulates in a way that I think is different from other media where you can go back and watch old films or read old novels, but with plays you just kind of have to listen to the text and see how our thinking about it has accumulated.