"Midsummer Night's Dream"

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tony Simotes
At Shakespeare and Company
the Mount, Lenox MA. Summer 1997

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

No sooner had I read in some theatre article that "Midsummer Night's Dream" was no longer producable, being both politically incorrect and the recent object of re-interpretive stagings by seminal directors whose success made imitations pointless and alternatives unthinkable, than suddenly I see "Midsummer Night's Dream" on stages everywhere -- six productions in this area in little more than a year! All have been well worth seeing, but the most consistently engaging was the one Tony Simotes directed for the young actors in Shakespeare and Company's Summer Performance Institute training program, indoors at the Stables Theatre. (I arrived expecting that a "Midsummer Night's Dream" production would naturally be outdoors, and headed up the path to the grove that conceals the Oxford Court Theatre until I realized my mistake.) Simotes says in his director's program notes that he played Puck in Tina Packer's outdoor production for Shakespeare and Company twenty years ago, and that that experience has inspired his life in the Theatre. Simotes staging was filled to the brim with devotion and inspiration, and it has probably enthralled a whole new generation of the young to put their lives and talents at the service of the ancient divinities of comedy and drama.

Simotes, who is a Greek-American, chose to set "Midsummer Night's Dream" in Greece in the 1950's. This didn't seem to me to be a promising choice, but it was wildly successful: perhaps because it was a deep and personal one that helped him make sense of the characters and plot for his young actors. The actors, so inspired, made the play live and breathe as if new. The production was extravagantly physical, beginning with the troupe singing -- In Greek, I assume: at least it was Greek to me -- and playing folk instruments and line dancing to music composed by Heather Faust . Then Theseus ( Hugh d'Autremont ) and Hippolyta ( Jen Bosworth ) squared off for a duel illustrative of that warrior pair's rough mating. Costumes by Tracy Hinman mixed traditional Greek peasant dress with parade-style military uniforms -- the period is just after the Greek Civil War -- and with kitsch fifties fashion. Hermia ( Kristin Kuttner ) appeared in a white damask box jacketed suit, with a little pink scarf tied round her pony tail, looking like a potential Prom Queen. Helena ( Marybeth Bentwood ) looked like the bright but not quite so popular girl who is class vice president, in circle skirt and cat's eye glasses on a neck chain. Demetrius ( Ted Hewlett ) was on the nerdy side in a neat brown suit and wire rims, Lysander (Leslie Toth ) had the lazy confidence of a star jock.

The hard hearted Egeus whose insistence that daughter Hermia accept her parents' choice of husband or die was not the girl's father but her Mother, (Justine Moore ), a sleek chignoned matron whose affection for her prospective son-in-law Demetrius had more than a touch of the creepy about it. Arranged marriages backed by the force of law, with elopement or adultery capital crimes, are still the rule in much of the world -- but not in any part of the world American young people know well enough to connect with imaginatively. However, connect these young people did. When the lovers took to the forest to escape the law and fulfill their own desires their pursuits and escapes had a life or death urgency to them that issued in acrobatics -- flying, flouncing, flinging, clinging, pushing, dragging, grabbing, carrying, shaking, casting one another off -- movement specialists Susan Dibble and Sarah Barker led the cast through contortions that were funny and frightening in their extremes but never beyond the emotions that they expressed.

The fairies wore costumes that may have come from an earlier Shakespeare and Company Mainstage production -- at least they looked familiar--- and they were the best fairy costumes I have ever seen, a gorgeous mix of classical nymph and Victorian children's book illustration, graceful and flattering to everyone, male and female, who wore them. Beyond flattery was Christine Calfas ' Queen Titania, who in her gauzy drapery and with her elfin features framed by a cap of short pearly white hair looked like a creature made all of air and fire. As the sonnet says "I grant I never saw a Goddess go"-- but I am convinced that were I to do so, the Immortal would move like Calfas' Titania. I saw the stunning actress-dancer Carmen De Lavallade play Titania in the American Repertory Theatre's "Midsummer Night's Dream" twenty years ago --- young Calfas is even better. Jonah Bey 's Oberon was no match for his fairy spouse in range, but he equaled Calfas in sheer charismatic presence.

Antonia Freeland played Puck, a put-upon, undercutting, clutzy Puck, with a wicked pack of innuendoes. The Rude Mechanicals were a mixed lot -- Susan Keill, Stephen Cebik, Kay Arita, Justine Moore, Dave Vaillancourt -- and the group's youth and gender-inclusivity did make it seem strange rather than natural that a man would be cast as Thisbe in their Most Lamentable Tragedy, and made the players' exaggerated concern for the sensibility of "ladies" in the audience even stranger. However, beyond such questions, and beyond matters of experience and timing, for these comic bits to work what is most necessary is a whole-hearted commitment to the power of make-believe, which was present in abundance. I may not have credited, precisely, that Susan Keill was one Quince, a carpenter; but I was certainly convinced that her character was in love with drama and in charge of making her motley crew presentable to the Duke at his wedding festivities. Max Vogler was not the very top of Bottoms -- but he was solid and sufficient and sported a splendid bray. Best of all was the feeling of community in the group scenes, of people who know each other's foibles and are ready to trust in one another's good will.

The Institute company is still in training, and doesn't yet have the vocal technique to fully invest the poetry the way Packer's old hands do, so when words were at war with movement, the bodies carried the scene away. Certain quips and poetic effusions in the text were trimmed, as is appropriate: but was it really necessary to cut my favorite line, Theseus' lovely epigram on the art of acting? It's the line I have taped above the screen of the computer where I write my reviews:
" The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them."