Wednesday, April 16, 2008

First Thoughts on the Guthrie Midsummer Night’s Dream

Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dir. Joe Dowling. Perf. Nic Few, Emily Swallow, Kathryn Lawrey, William Sturdivant, Jonas Goslow, Valeri Mudek, Namir Smallwood, and Stephen Pelinsky. Guthrie Theatre Company. Minneapolis. 12 April—22 June 2008.
Last night, a group of students and faculty went down to the Guthrie Theatre to see their Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I haven’t had time to digest everything about the production, but I think I can break my impressions into four categories: overall impressions, things that worked, things that didn’t work, and things that might work for some but won’t work for others.

Overall Impression
Great. A good production, well-acted (for the most part), with a clear and careful understanding of the text and heapings of interesting decisions to think and to talk about.
Things that Worked
Some musical arrangements. First, there was a very funny Doo-wop version of the lullaby the fairies sing to Titania in II.ii. The head fairy on that number had a lovely, soaring voice, and the “Diana and the Supremes” choreography was pleasing.
Oberon’s “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” (II.ii.249ff) was more serious, and it also worked really well. It’s a powerfully lyrical speech, and the setting gave it strength. It started out with a dance beat behind it, and then some loud guitars made their way in.
Dance numbers. There were a lot of them, and I can’t remember one that didn’t work. There was a lovely group dance (something I would imagine would take place on a club stage, though I don’t have the experience to name the precise genre of dance) after the four lovers have been sorted out at the end of Act IV, scene i. They decided to take the line “Rock the ground whereon these sleepers be” (IV.i.85) and turn it into something of a house piece. Great use of line, great dancing, great music, great energy.
More seriously, the couples all dance after the weddings and before the Pyramus and Thisbe play, and it’s very well done. The entire play has been something of a dance of changing couples; at the beginning of Act V, the Guthrie production has the couples do that dance literally . . . only they refuse to change partners when the dance demands it. The dancers separate and head toward the opposite partner—but the memory of the events in the woods is too fresh, so they return to their original partners. [Later in the play, hugs are exchanged all around, indicating that they are ready, at that point, to embrace their friendships once more.]
Doubling. Theseus and Hippolyta double as Oberon and Titania. Puck doubles as Philostrate. And there may have been more doubling among the other characters, but I didn’t notice it as much. The doubling works. It must be incredibly tough on the actors, but the transformation from T & H to O & T—especially when it must be such a quick change at the end—is really astonishing. And it’s interesting to consider the ways in which those two couples are alike.
Puck—in an extraordinary costume which I don’t have the vocabularly to describe (it’s part super-hero and part 1970s boogie movie and part English renaissance drama)—wanders in to fraternize with the audience before the “Turn off your cell phones, for goodness’ sake” announcement.” He’s then tracked down by two costumers who quickly cover up that outfit with a nice business suit, leaving him ready to be Philostrate—clean-cut (except for his cool, bright white hair with a red streak).
The Costumes. They work. It’s very Shakespearean to have the costumes detract from the play. The costumes for this production (mostly in the woods outside Athens) are outrageous. They are weird and goth and punk and stunning.
The Rude Mechanicals. They’re always great. It’s great to see good actors playing bad actors—and playing them very well. Bravo!
Military Uniforms. Egeus and Demetrius are both in military uniform in I.i, and it’s a nice visual connection between the two of them—and between Theseus (who is presented as something of a military dictator in a business suit early in the production) and Egeus. It gives additional motivation to Theseus’ decision to back Egeus in his plans for his daughter’s marriage.
Many Other Things. But I don’t have time to mention them here yet.
Things that Didn’t Work
Some musical arrangements. I’m sorry, but Puck’s attempt to rap “Yet but three? Come one more. / Two of both kinds makes up four” (III.ii.437-38) slowed up the action and was fairly embarrassing.
The Luther Vandrossian numbers also failed. Perhaps I’m too cynical, but there’s a limit to the amount of cheese I can take in any given production, and there was too much cloying cheese there.
Some of the Stage Business. I don’t know. There seems to be a tendency in Guthrie productions to have some immature, high school antics. In this production, there are some silly voices, blowing kisses routines, double-takes, and Minnesotan asides that may get laughs—but they’re awfully easy laughs.
Some of Theseus’ / Oberson’s Speeches. I’d like to see a wider range of dynamics in his character(s). He tended to shout. He shouted most of the time, in fact. And his character(s) don’t need to do so. It’s the Guthrie! We can hear a whisper from the stage even if we’re in the back row.
Some of the Sliding in on Ropes Stuff. Before going to the production, I heard a report that it was “Shakespeare meets Cirque du Solei.” I suppose that had to do with the fairies doing some minor acrobatics on ropes. I think “Shakespeare meets Seussical the Musical” might be more accurate.
Things that Might Work for Some but Won’t Work for Others
Underwear. When the lovers enter the woods, their clothes are wisked away, leaving them in their underwear (though they don’t seem to notice until they are discovered by Theseus and Hippolyta late in Act IV). The surface reason may be in the idea that people dream of being in public places—giving a speech, going to school, et cetera—in their underwear. The deeper reason may be that the lovers’ identities / pretensions / civilization / culture / et cetera dissipate when they are away from the city, giving them the chance to come to genuine realizations about their own nature. But it may not work for some people. [By the way, the underwear isn’t terribly revealing . . . rumors of nudity in the production are exaggerated.]
Giant Meteor Rising through the Stage and Opening to Reveal Titania’s Bower. That about says it. You can see the meteor (I think it’s really meant to be a geode) in the image above. I liked it—even though (or perhaps because) it’s over the top. But it isn’t for everyone.
Hippolyta’s Gradual Acceptence of Theseus. When he asks her to come with him in Act I, she deliberately exits in the opposite direction. When he asks her to come with him in Act V, she willingly acquiesces. I thought it was effective. It’s a slow character development.
That’s just a start—there’s much more to be said. And that, in itself, makes it a good production. Well done, Guthrie! Thank you so very much!

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