For me, seeing Shakespeare performed is a wonderful treat because I often find reading Shakespeare a bit arduous and frustrating. A well-executed performance takes away the difficulties of understanding the Bard’s complex verse and exchanges it with all of the life and humor that he originally intended. Shakespeare in the Dark’s winter performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” ultimately succeeds due to the wonderfully tight-knit cast and modern sensibility brought to the performance.
To speak of the brilliance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is almost unnecessary. The premise is simple — four young lovers venture off into an Athenian forest to escape familial pressure, only to find mischievous faeries and an amateur acting troupe — but provides a broad framework for plenty of romance, sex, and downright hilarious moments.
The lively and charismatic performances were the hallmark of Shakespeare in the Dark’s production of “Midsummer.” The chemistry between the actors was undeniable. Aron De Simone ’13 and Eliot Wegman ’12, who played Lysander and Demetrius, respectively, elicited great sympathy for their romantic troubles from the audience, and they were perfect rivals when the impish faerie Puck’s magical potion resulted in the two men pursuing the same woman. The group of faeries that followed the faerie king and queen Oberon and Titania worked very well together; their gentle movements and songs helped accentuate the dreamy, magical aspects of the play. The theater group within the play consistently delivered the most humorous parts of the play well — the entire audience was in stitches as the troupe performed its parody of Romeo and Juliet for the newly wed Athenians thanks to the natural humor that emanated from Ricky Portner ’14, who played Nick Bottom.
As most of us learned in our high school English classes, Elizabethan actors were expected to take both multiple roles as well as roles of the opposite sex, a trend that persists in modern day Shakespeare performances. One actress in particular must be commended for an incredibly dynamic performance — Grace Mendenhall ’13 played both the stern and unsympathetic Egeus, father of Hermia, as well as the buffoonish Peter Quince, the leader of the rag-tag theater group camping out in the woods. I found her presentation of the slapstick routine in which Peter Quince attempts to pack up his troupe’s equipment singlehandedly a sidesplitting highlight of the show.
Other cast members that successfully took on separate roles include the two leads Robin Crigler ’14 and Elizabeth Cloghessy ’15. Crigler managed to capture the flighty benevolence of Oberon and the power-hungry and vulgar nature of Theseus. Cloghessy played the female leader of both the humans and faeries, Hyppolita and Queen Titania, respectively. She perfectly captured the dignity and pride of both characters through her exceptional ability to speak Shakespearean English with both force and clarity. Witnessing such a dignified-looking character flirt with the goofy Nick Bottom, who was transformed into a donkey, was priceless.
Despite the synergistic cast and timeless script, one element of the performance felt persistently distracting. The floor of the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium was left empty, save for a few rows of chairs by the walls and the front of the stadium seating so that the cast was not confined to just the small stage. While a good idea in theory, the use of the partition between the floor and stadium as a catwalk for characters and the use of all doors — including the ones in the back of the auditorium — for entry and exit and excessively coordinated fight scenes resulted in muddled lines and loud, stomping performers who were out of breath. To me, in a performance of Shakespeare, the focus should be on the beauty and brilliance of the text and the talent of the actors, not on acrobatics.
Several other unique touches were added to the performance, which, although they ultimately added to the audience’s enjoyment, in my opinion made the performance a bit too informal. The faeries made eye contact with the audience, sat in chairs, and inspected water bottles. Leads would often make their asides to a specific section of the audience, once again frequently making eye contact. And during the comedic climax, in which Quince’s acting troupe gives their nonsensical performance, I was surprised to have Theseus and Hippolyta sit in my row and persisting in eating Milk Duds and shout their lines from the seats of the auditorium. The many smiles and laughs of the audience mostly indicated they appreciated the interactive nature of the show, but for me, Shakespeare is almost too sacred to take such liberties with the production, even if “Midsummer” is just a comedy.
However, the minor distractions brought about by the unique additions are insignificant, because beyond them lies an incredibly skilled cast and a classic script that is not only brilliant, but genuinely fun and engaging.