Last year, at the end of The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, it occurred to me that their productions are the ideal way to watch Shakespeare comedies. These productions, performed all over Cleveland, are free outdoor comedies. People sit on the grass or on lawn chairs with sleeping babies. They bring their dogs. There’s no sense of showing up out of a sense of status or elitism. I don’t feel the need to quote Nietzsche while I’m there, or in my case, pretend that I’ve read Nietzsche.
Last weekend, I saw their production of A Midsummer’ Night’s Dream. They performed this as a small production, with a small number of actors performed all the necessary roles. I can’t imagine how exhausting (and yet how energizing) that must have been. The cast performed their parts respectably. The costumes were very well designed as well. It is essential in a production like this that the costumes be functional and practical, and the details are essential. For example, the lovers also played the parts of the fairies. The costumes for the fairies were colorful masks and long sashes of brightly colored cloth. It actually worked very well. It easily distinguished between the lovers and the fairies, and gave the fairies a magical, other worldly quality. At the same time, it is very easy to throw on a mask and a sash, making it perfectly practical for the production.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is actually a great play to perform outside. We sat on the grass on a warm summer evening, so it was actually very easy to imagine that we were truly in the woods outside of Athens. We even had trees around us, actual trees!
My favorite part of the production was the players attempting to perform “The Lamentable Comedy of Pyramus and Thisbe” for the newly married Theseus and Hippolyta. It’s actually the perfect atmosphere for this part of the play.
It is easy to think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as simply a lighthearted meditation on the perils of infatuation and young love. However, there is another theme in the background: the performance of a play. It is this theme that comes to a head at the end. The actors perform a play that is “so bad, it’s good.” It’s the theatrical equivalent of Birdemic or The Room. The tragedy fails so severely that it is simply hilarious.
The text of the play struggles with the suspension of disbelief needed in a play. It is the comic equivalent of “Oh for a muse of fire!” in Henry V. The actors beg the audience to think of the actors as representing walls, lions, and the man in the moon. However, the speeches only serve to distract the audience from the characters they are portraying and highlighting the artifice of the play. The actors are also unable to respect the rules of the play, with hilarious results. Pyramus enters by the wall, and laments that the wall separates him from his love. However, as he speaks, he walks right past the wall! The wall (actor) has to grab him and bring him back to the right side of the stage. I laughed so hard at that moment. Everyone laughed.
In a way, the struggle of the actors at that moment mirrors the struggle of Shakespeare’s company. They had to perform this play with minimal special effects. This is even more pertinent in an age of CGI movies, where people can (and will) pay $100 million dollars to see giant robots fighting each other and riding robot dinosaurs for the fourth time, in an exercise of “inexplicable dumb show and noise.” (No one splits the ears of the groundlings quite like Michael Bay. Oh, and to everyone who saw Transformers this weekend, don’t complain to me if movies suck and have nonsensical plots (if they have plots at all) with terrible one dimensional interchangeable characters. This is why we can’t have nice things!) A theater company, especially an outdoor traveling free theater company, does not have that advantage.
Still, there is something incredibly magical about the theater. I very much enjoyed entering the world of the young lovers and the fairies, with magical potion that causes everyone to fall in love with the wrong person. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a delightful treat, with minimal danger, lots of fun, and happy endings for everyone. What is not to love?
Oh, as a lasting thought, I present to you the overture of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Here is a later movement in the piece, that I trust will be familiar to all.
Oh, The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival will be performing Romeo and Juliet later this summer. I urge everyone in Cleveland to check it out. I’ll be there, I don’t know when, but I’ll be there.
I’ll also have to write a post about my complicated relationship with the play Romeo and Juliet. But I’ll be there to see it. I can’t wait. 🙂