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A Midsummer-Night's Dream

Within "William Shake-speare's" pre-eminent canon of Western drama and poetry, this play stands out as the most adaptable, not only in setting, but across genres. It can be enjoyed as ballet or opera without missing a theatrical beat, just as it can be enjoyed in its original time period, or, as in this case, as a post-World War I, Roaring Twenties' commentary on the decline of the nobility and the ascendency of, however short-lived, civil values.

Stephen Cole Hughes as Oberon
Steven Cole Hughes as Oberon
Photo: Glenn Asakawa
University of Colorado
The beauty of director Geoff Kent's setting is that it bears a strong resemblance to the period when the play was first performed, when the nobili vecchi (old nobility) was beginning to be eclipsed by the new (economic) aristocracy of bankers and their corporations (merchants). But with this 1920's adaptation, our bonuses include a jazzy score, the Charleston, and some dapper gents and seductive flappers.

Jamie Ann Romero as Titania and Stephen Cole Hughes as Oberon
Jamie Ann Romero as Titania
and Steven Cole Hughes as Oberon
Photo: Glenn Asakawa
University of Colorado
Of course, there is a whole other dimension to the story, involving faeries, magic spells, and potions. A Midsummer-Night's Dream is often credited as being prototype for the genre of faery tales that followed. Here, Kent, an aficionado of warriors, super heroes, and fight choreography, takes it up a level, adding subtle but highly effective sound effects to underscore the superpowers being exhibited by Titania (Jamie Ann Romero), Oberon (Steven Cole Hughes), and Puck (Lawrence Hecht), as well as their stable of faeries. Romero and Hughes' chemistry is a fascinating combination of supernatural dalliance and physical magnetism, accentuated by Clare Henkel's stunning costumes.

So, in addition to the usual parallel tracks of Shakespearean plot lines, between the nobility, the burghers, and the rustics, we have the added drama of faery royalty.

Jenna Bainbridge as Hermia
Jenna Bainbridge as Hermia
Photo: Glenn Asakawa
University of Colorado
For the titled set, we've got the four lovers at the center of the comedy—Hermia (Jenna Bainbridge), Helena (Taylor Fisher), Lysander (Sean Scrutchins), and Demetrius (Sammie Joe Kinnett)—whose personal crushes conflict with Athenian marriage protocol, that is, women and children as chattel (property). This was a recurring theme in Shakespeare; for example, Romeo and Juliet, where the playwright argues that love should preempt arranged marriages. In A Midsummer-Night's Dream, it is Hermia's father, Egeus (Sam Sandoe) who insists that she marry (Demetrius) for money and position, instead of her heart's desire (Lysander). Kent's unconventional casting makes for a thoughtful and accessible romantic merry-go-round.

Lawrence Hecht as Puck and Nicole Bruce as First Fairy
Lawrence Hecht as Puck
and Nicole Bruce as First Fairy
Photo: Glenn Asakawa
University of Colorado
While, Titania and Oberon untangle their interpersonal web of superficial feelings for others and genuine affection for each other, Puck attempts to straighten out some loose ends for his master, Oberon, but, in the case of the four lovers, is too drunk to do so competently. As he did with the four lovers, Kent goes outside the box casting Hecht as the errant sprite, as if to say that the gods and their henchmen do not fit neatly into types any more than their human equivalents; though, classic comedic form being what it is, it all works out in the end. The payoff for this unusual approach is that Puck's mistakes are our own.

Eventually, it is the Duke, Theseus (Nathan Stith), who certifies the proper emotional pairings and bends the law for comedic satisfaction and resolution, a noteworthy step forward in personal and collective dramatic persuasion. In matters of love, it seems, the playwright, a nobleman (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford), pushes the envelope. Clearly, de Vere's unhappy arranged first marriage1 and his loss of ancestral lands, both at the hands of his corrupt guardian and later father-in-law, William Cecil, Lord Burghley (Queen Elizabeth's chief of state for nearly a half century), had a large influence in this matter.

Nigel Gore as Nick Bottom
Nigel Gore as Nick Bottom
Photo: Glenn Asakawa
University of Colorado
Finally, the rustics, led by the insufferable Bottom (Nigel Gore), perform a play-within-a-play as a commentary on the vicissitudes of love. Here, de Vere not only makes a farce of the subject, thereby mocking the quality of feelings of the groundlings, but continues his commentary on acting much as he did with the play-within-a-play in Hamlet, albeit in a comedic fashion. Members of the court, for whom this was first performed (at two separate nuptials), would recognize the grain dealer (Stratford's Shakspere) cum actor and script aggregator2 in Bottom. Gore brings a disarming naturalness to the Bottom's self-absorption, ruefully reinforcing the weaver's warped ego.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's A Midsummer-Night's Dream runs in repertory with Macbeth, Richard II, The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), and Women of Will through August 11th. 303-492-0554 or www.coloradoshakes.org.

Bob Bows

Footnotes:

1De Vere wrote five plays in which the central theme was a husband cuckholded by his wife (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale). Although he eventually got over his suspicions (which arose when he heard of his wife's preganancy while he was on his famous tour of the continent), as a result of Lord Burghley's insistence that de Vere was a victim of a bed trick (which is a plot device in Measure for Measure and in All's Well That Ends Well), the enmity at the time was a major disruption to the court and greatly distressed Queen Elizabeth.

2Ben Jonson, who aided de Vere's family in maintaining the ruse that the Stratford man wrote the canon (his commentary prefacing the First Folio [published by de Vere's daughter, Susan de Vere Herbert and her husband, the Earl of Montgomery] and his tantalizing puns on the monument on the Stratford man's bust across from his tomb), summed up the behavior of the Stratford man in a poem entitled "The Poet Ape":

Poor "poet-ape," that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are even the frippery of wit,
From brokage [brokerage] is become so bold a thief
As we, the robbed, leave rage and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion [revision] of old plays. Now grown
To a little wealth and credit in the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man's wit his own.
And told of this, he slights it. "Tut, such crimes
The sluggish, gaping auditor devours;
He marks not whose 'twas first, and aftertimes
May judge it to be his, as well as ours."
  Fool! As if half-eyes will not know a fleece
  From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece.

Mark Anderson, author of Shakespeare by Another Name, translates Jonson's poem thusly:

The man who many people think is England's finest author (Will Shakspere) is in fact a "poet-ape"—someone whose works are sloughed-off pieces of wit from one or more actual authors. The "poet-ape" began his career as a (play) broker and then, emboldened, he became an out-and-out play-thief. We playwrights were mad, but we also pity the guy. He used to be sly and would cobble together bits and pieces of plays here and there. But now that he's prominent in the London theatrical scene, he takes an entire play and claims it as his own. When he's confronted with this, he responds that others may figure out who wrote it—or not. But what a fool he is! With one's eyes half-way closed, anyone can easily tell the difference between hanks of wool and a whole fleece, or between mere patches and an entire blanket. (p. 318)

 

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