Life is But a Dream: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Presented by Bristol Old Vic
in association with Handspring Puppet Company
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tom Morris

March 6th – 15, 2014
ArtsEmerson Cutler Majestic Theatre
Boston, MA
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Review by Danielle Rosvally

(Boston) As much as I love my Willy (and, trust me, there’s no girl in the world who loves Willy more than I do), Midsummer has always been a problematic play for me.

It’s not the language; this play is simply beautiful linguistically with enough famous speeches to keep a casual listener engaged but not so much that it begins to feel like Hamlet (bopping from one pop culture soliloquy to another with nary a breath in between). This play has more rhyming couplets than you can shake a stick at; and natural imagery that can lull even a colicky infant into the show’s titular pleasant reverie.

It’s not the characters; who doesn’t like fairies, hams, and cat-fighty lovers?

No, for me it’s always been that this play simply demands the impossible. To play Oberon and Titania, an actor must be larger than life. To create the magic demanded by the text, the company needs to create a sense of wonder. This is extremely difficult to do in the theatre where jaded audiences simply won’t buy into magic like they used to before Lucasfilm. For magic to happen, you almost literally need magic to happen.

So that was what was so extraordinary about this Midsummer. Because of Handspring’s brilliant usage of mundane objects to create extraordinary characters, the puppetry allows these characters to be larger than life. I don’t want to ruin any surprises for you (because trust me there are several), but let’s just say that I’ll never be able to look at Puck the same way again, or hear the phrase “ass over teakettle” without some colorful (and literal) visual imagery.

In short, this is the Dream the way it’s supposed to be: loveable characters who live in extremes lost amidst a homespun world where magic still exists.

I will say that the actors’ command of text wasn’t perfect. In fact, the first act was pretty boring. The lovers, while visually stunning (they literally found the two tallest men in England and the shortest woman to play alongside them), didn’t have much going. This isn’t entirely the actors’ fault; while their language is pretty in act one there’s not really much juice there. It’s like cotton candy: all fluff and no stuff.

But then they got into the forest. In this Dream, Hippolyta is the mother/creator. A tinkerer who makes her own unspecified creations in a workshop. One gets the sense that it’s her dream we’re seeing rather than Bottom’s (or anyone else’s for that matter). The woods itself was created by actors holding wooden planks, scuttling and scurrying at Oberon’s command to craft dynamic portraiture and a transmogrifying space within which staged scenes could occur.

One key element to a good Dream is how the company handles the fistful of “invisibility” scenes where the audience can see a character (Oberon, Puck, or both) but the lovers onstage can’t. Since the fairies were creations of puppeteers utilizing key objects rather than cohesive puppets, when these characters became invisible they could seamlessly blend with the scenery by simply disassembling themselves. Similarly, when a character escaped into the woods or was otherwise engulfed out of the scene, she could grab a plank and become part of the forest.

The mechanicals were right at home in this post-apocalyptic world. In fact, the theatre itself seemed to be somewhere they could live. The Cutler Majestic is a barn of a house and often you can see straight back to the studs; in this production that backdrop served as a metatheatrical device. Yes, this is theatre, but part of the point is that you are aware of watching theatre. And, honestly, the transporting element of the talent displayed onstage was enough to shirk any stray outside thought from my mind. This play was, in all aspects, greater than its parts (which is often times what its puppets amounted to as well).

The act five play-within-a-play was everything I wanted and more. A fresh new take on Snout’s Wall had me rolling in the aisles (and brought new meaning to the lines “my cherry lips have often kissed thy stones” and “I kiss the wall’s hole and not your lips at all”). Genuine emotion was brought to the death of Pyramus and Thisbe. And, of course, Ninny’s tomb lives evermore in the bumbling memories of those who have ever witnessed a novice performer with severe stage fright.

Let me put this simply: if you want to see literal transformations, magic before your eyes, and Shakespeare at his finest, find a way to see this show. It’s well worth the trip downtown.

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