What continually impresses me about the Folger Theatre is that it takes on Shakespeare plays and that nothing is off limits from experimentation or adaptation. They are masters at unlocking new levels of meaning and focusing on often overlooked details within the text. In my opinion A Midsummer Night’s Dream, under the direction of Aaron Posner, is the best representation, so far, of this dedication to reexamining the classics.
From the opening monologue the production bucked the traditional. Puck wandered into the audience and with a few newly created lines she had power over our modern buzzes and chirps (i.e., cell phones), threading music, dancing, and light throughout the evening using her capable, mischievous hands. Wonderfully, this production cast Erin Weaver to play Puck and through it one of the most gender fluid character in Shakespeare’s folio was instantly both altered and amplified. The character dynamics between herself, her play-thing mortals (the audience included), and most notably, Oberon, where given an additional layer. Where male Pucks tend to be bonded to Oberon through brotherly loyalty and an addiction to mischief, lacking any character driven agenda, Weaver developed an unrequited lover’s devotion and attempted personal agency to that end. She obeyed Oberon but only after making deliberate choices in how it would suit her ultimate goals.
With Theseus and Hippolyta, played by Eric Hissom and Caroline Stefanie Clay, this production focused on the awkward realities of their relationship and soon to be marriage. As is often ignored by other productions, this Hippolyta was dressed in a manner that highlighted her Amazonian roots, and the initial distrust between Theseus and Hippolyta was thinly veiled beneath the requirements of their political agreements and positions. This was most evident as, nervous and hesitant, Theseus tried to balance the laws of Athens and the opinion of his betrothed when Elliott Bales playing Egeus demanded his rights by tradition as Hermia’s father. Hissom’s portrayal endearingly bounced back and forth between pleading with Hermia to choose Demetrius’ love over a virgin’s life and trying not to relate the unwanted arrangement with his own marital hesitations. On the opposite side of themselves, Hissom and Clay, played Oberon and Titania much like your odd aunt and uncle; slightly creepy, definitely awkward, and unclear as to what drew them together in the first place, but wholly dedicated to their own purpose.
The play’s lovers delivered admirably on the text’s rich and timeless mishaps. The little but fierce Hermia played by Betsy Mugavero fought for her love in a voice twice her size, while the magically manufactured love triangle of Desmond Bing as Demetrius, Adam Wesley Brown as Lysander, and Kim Wong as Helena were delightfully bewildered and passionate. It may not be every day that there’s a ukulele serenade in Shakespeare, but, when there is one, the only choice is to swoon like Hermia.
The production’s largest adaptation was in transforming the troupe of craftsmen players into a drama club for a local girls’ school. Richie Ruiz as Peter Quince became the timid, amenable club administrator while Holly Twyford as Bottom provided the artistic brains with a Professor Trelawney flair. Monique Robinson as Snout (as the Wall), Justina Adorno as Starveling (as the Man in the Moon), Dani Stoller as Francis Flute (as Thisbe), and most memorably Megan Graves as the soft spoken Snug the Lion (also Philostrate to the Duke) delivered impressively comical and developed performances as members of the Drama Club.
Instantly relatable and surprisingly familiar, this transformation seemed obvious and felt like the pieces these characters had been missing all along in stage adaptions (hat tip to Were the World Mine for piloting this general idea on the big screen).
But perhaps the most brilliant element of the flip was casting Twyford as Bottom. Her portrayal of this excessively unaware and self-important Creative was the embodiment of every middle school drama teacher we’ve all known, adored, and simultaneously suffered through. Inspired with more bad ideas than good and more dramatic pause than thought, her arts mentor interpretation both captured and perfectly grounded the naïve devotion she inspired from her fellow players (i.e., students) and her constant desire to have others acknowledge the inflated talent she believes she possesses but has found no opportunity to realize.
This tension came to a surprising point in the players performance for the Duke and Hippolyta. The tedious and brief play broke from the mold of the ridiculous and delivered the only sincere and beautifully performed deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe I have ever seen. So much so that it left me feeling guilty about the assumptions I had initially made regarding their characters. Maybe there was talent below all of that fool-like bumbling. Until this production I had never stopped to consider that Bottom could have or be driven by actual talent instead of just by delusions of grandeur for unattainable talent. But Twyford tipped the scales entirely and gave Bottom the artistic legitimacy she had spent the whole Night trying to earn. Surprising as it was refreshing, Bottom’s validation left tears of sadness instead of laughter in everyone’s eyes.
Equally as important and impressive as those upon the stage were those behind the scenes. As is always a challenge with the Folger Theatre stage, Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway took on the puzzle of those front columns and wrapped the set in a twilight blue with fanciful golden stars and a moon. The staple Folger Theatre original music was composed by Andre Pluess, and the sound design that brought everything so seamlessly together was created by Sarah Pickett.
Erika Chong Shuch’s choreography set the dream in full motion—from balcony to ground using several oversized pillows—with the constant intertwined play between the realms. These interactions were cleverly highlighted in the lighting design of Jesse Belsky and enhanced by the costume design be Devon Painter, moving the production from spotlights to asides, mortals to fairies, dreams to waking.
Last and certainly not least, Director Aaron Posner is to be commended for the intelligent and innovative decisions he made in bringing this latest production to life. With the help of the incredibly capable Michele Osherow as Resident Dramaturg, his vision has advanced the literary and theatrical dialogue possible within this already expansive text.
Set to run only through the beginning of March, I have to hope that Folger Theatre’s magical A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be extended several times so that more people will get a chance to see this thought-provoking version. Its originality, purposeful variations, and the playful way it drops us on our heads, makes for a simply wonderful addition to this ever-evolving Dream.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.