The course of true love never did run smooth, but Trinity Repertory Company’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM certainly does.
Director Tyler Dobrowsky has set Shakespeare’s 1595 hit not only in 1986, but also in a high school – possibly in Trinity’s own hometown of Providence, Rhode Island.
At a pep rally, we’re introduced to kids sporting signs that say “Cutest Couple,” “Class Clown” and the like. Who’s “Most Likely to Succeed”? Well, Demetrius, of course, as we infer because he’s the only student wearing glasses.
Glaring at the students in the way teachers often do are two cafeteria monitors: Hippolyta, with her too-sensible hair is no-nonsense and square-shouldered while Theseus is just plain square.
So when Egeus comes to Thesus in hopes that he’ll make his daughter Hermia choose Demetrius — his first choice of beau and not Lysander, with whom she’s in puppy love — we know this straight arrow is going to side with dad.
After this, Shakespeare cheated. With Egeus so anti-Lysander, why would he walk out and leave Hermia alone with him? The Bard simply had to give the kids some alone-time so they could plan their escape into the nearby forest.
Shakespeare did get one thing right that would become a trademark of Chekhov three centuries later: people tend to fall in love with people who don’t love them back. Just as Demetrius is smitten with the unimpressed Hermia, Helena is gaga over the equally uninterested Demetrius. To solve the problem, Shakespeare put fairies in the forest, who, under the aegis of Puck, made both men love the previously spurned Helena and then treat Helena like – well, Hermia.
That’s enough for one play, but Shakespeare added a subplot. A bunch of “rude mechanicals” aren’t “rude” in the contemporary sense – they’re simply unrefined – and actually charming in their own low-rent way. Because Hippolyta and Theseus will soon tie the knot, these guys have a severe case of let’s-put-on-a-show-itis. They’ll perform PYRAMUS AND THISBE – although they have no idea at this point how utterly ineptly they’ll do it.
(Shakespeare may well have been spoofing himself here. PYRAMUS AND THISBE is awfully similar to ROMEO AND JULIET which, some scholars will tell you, was the play that The Bard wrote just before MIDSUMMER.)
Later this season Broadway will see the British import THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. We can only hope it’s as side-splitting as this PYRAMUS AND THISBE, which never goes right in the hands of these guys. When they bring out a cactus, we know it’s only a matter time (and not much of it) before it winds up under someone’s gluteus maximus.
This comes after Puck has decided just for fun to impose upon the head of Nick Bottom, the mechanical’s self-proclaimed superstar, one befitting a donkey. What’s more, Puck will have Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, fall in love with the ass and cheat on her regal husband Oberon.
Par for the course of any contemporary Shakespearean production, there’s little to no set.
That didn’t stop Michael McGarty’s imagination. Think of a hockey rink around which we’re all sitting, but the ice is the stage, albeit only a rather narrow oval about a fifth of the usual size. Two stadium-seating sections spin around, and although the term “taken for a ride” usually has a negative connotation, Trinity’s spectators clearly enjoyed the drive around the stage.
What Trinity saved on the set and the public-domain playwright went into a splurge-fest of costumes. Olivera Gajic has given Titania a red dress that would be the envy of Dolly Levi, Molly Brown, Desiree Armfeldt and Annie Warbucks. She’s put Hermia and Helena in private-school uniforms, although the more freewheeling Hermia has shed her blazer, perhaps to suggest that she’s ablaze with lust. Gajic hasn’t ignored wigs (Oberon has a pompadour that suggests that Elvis has re-entered the building) or a practical ass-head for you-know-who.
As for the actors, Lord, what jewels these mortals be — with one exception. We can’t blame Jude Sandy, however, for making Demetrius geeky and silly; that was obviously Dobrowsky’s decision. Doesn’t this director remember from his own high school days that in the teenage world, “cool” is de rigueur to win fair lady? So why would Helena go for this simpering sissy who’d never get the interest of any teen girl unless she was a dominatrix-in-training who smelled easy prey.
Near play’s end, Demetrius suddenly straightens up and acts right, becoming a very nice and self-actualized young man. Yes, Puck and potions have something to do with that, but Demetrius should have been portrayed in that fashion from the outset.
Let’s ameliorate the criticisms of Sandy by saying his choreography shows promise and that he’s excellent in giving a soliloquy in rap (except, Mr. Dobrowsky, rap didn’t come into being until the ‘90s).
Gwen Kingston, however, creates a real teen down to a girl who writes her woes in her diary. When Egeus is speaking, Rebecca Gibel’s Hermia displays the sneer seen on rebellious adolescents (is there any other kind?) and Daniel Duque-Estrada’s Lysander has a hands-in-pockets arrogance that suggests at least a tinge of juvenile delinquency. Rachael Warren’s Puck conveys a nice mix of magic and mystery. Warren’s hair — fire-engine red where it isn’t fire-orange – nicely complements the where’s-the-fire way she zooms her roller-blades across the stage.
Two of Trinity’s Most Valuable Players are among the mechanicals. Fred Sullivan, Jr. is a perfect Bottom, down to the low-down way he treats a bra. (Don’t ask; just see.) Sullivan, wearing a “Drama Jock” button that he probably kept from own high school days, at one point gives a gesture that may seem salacious, but he does it in all innocence, letting us see how naïve this character really is. When he’s an ass and time comes for him to speak, he’s an excellent neigh-sayer.
Timothy Crowe is hilarious as Snug, the workaday who isn’t above admitting “I am slow of study” which gets a big laugh from the guilty-as-charged way he says it. You won’t immediately realize that Crowe portrays Egeus, too. For that matter, Mauro Hantman is decidedly different and effective in the usual Theseus/Oberon doubling, and if Phyllis Kay didn’t have such distinctive features, you wouldn’t know from her posture and demeanor that the actress you just saw as Hippolyta is the same one who’s now playing Titania.
Some will find the four lovers too old to convincingly come across as teens. Point taken. But here’s the thing: Dobrowsky raided local middle schools and cast 16 local kids – eight of which play at each performance – to portray Puck’s helpers. How great that boys and girls are getting to work with Trinity’s accomplished pros; already we see the results in the way they wave their ostrich fans in perfect unison. Here’s hoping that they stay interested in theater and when they reach high school that they’ll make the leads age-appropriate in Dobrowsky’s 2022 revival.