A Midsummer Night's Dream. Dir. Beth Gardiner. Perf. Benjamin Boucvalt, Silas Sellnow, Andrew Carlson, Anna Sundberg, Anique Clements, Zach Curtis, Antonio Duke, and Leah Gabriel. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2018.
First, the title of this post sums it up cleverly enough. The Great River Shakespeare Festival is putting on All's Well that Ends Well, and the Great River Shakespeare Festival is serving up its usual fare of tremendously thoughtful, terrifically acted Shakespeare plays. This is their fifteenth year of doing so, so that isn't too surprising.
Second, I got to the shows earlier in the season this year than in years past, which gives me more time to promote the productions more specifically. You have until August 5 to make it to Winona, Minnesota (a gorgeous two-hour drive from the Twin Cities) to see these marvelous plays.
Let me tell you briefly what struck me in of each of the Shakespeare plays on tap this year.
All's Well that Ends Well
This is one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," and it has traditionally been harder to find this in production than other, less difficult plays. Indeed, the Great River's production is the first live production I've seen.
One of the reasons it's denoted as a problem play is that its ending tends to be less satisfying than others of Shakespeare's comedies. And one of the main reasons for that is the character of Bertram, who seems priggish, spoiled, and whiny through the first four acts—and then proves to be a liar and (more or less) a scoundrel in Act V. And he's our male romantic lead!
And that can make Helena, our female romantic lead, either extremely naïve or extremely persistent and forgiving.
This production went with the latter. Indeed, the entire production is geared toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace. Halfway through the play, we get fabulously-constructed stagings like this, with Helena in the foreground and a silhouette of Bertram (looking somewhat Hamiltonesque) in the background:
Toward the end of the play, the two have moved to a level of equality and reconciliation, as seen in the image below:
Spoiler alert: The focus on forgiveness is so strong that the last five minutes or so of the show are largely taken up with Bertram kneeling before every individual he's wronged and silently asking for their forgiveness or absolution. It took (perhaps) a bit too long to accomplish, but it made that element of the production clear.
With the big-picture ideas out of the way, we can move to a few bullet points about the production:
- Parolles was played to great effect. It took just a little while for the audience to get his character and to understand that we're meant to laugh at his cowardice (a bit like we laugh at Falstaff). Once we caught on to that, he became a figure of true comic relief—one we looked forward to seeing.
- Many of Lavatch's lines were cut and replaced with whole Shakespeare sonnets (occasionally slightly modified to connect to the play). I need to re-read the play to form a clearer opinion about that decision . . . but it worked on the stage—probably primarily because the role was played so brilliantly by Jonathan Daly, who returned to the Festival this year to universal delight.
- The bed trick was fairly convincingly portrayed. Bertram meets with Diana, who blindfolds him before she is replaced by Helena.
- Lighting, costuming, and staging were all interestingly and brilliantly done.
Theatre is often about the personal experience, and my own gave me a perspective that I shall try to keep in mind in the future. I had never seen a live production of this play, and I haven't read it for over a decade. I remembered the broad strokes of the plot, but very few of the details. And it took me a while until I became attuned to Shakespeare's words and could follow the plot and the speeches with greater comprehension. I want to remember that feeling—I imagine it's how many of my students feel when they come to a Shakespeare play.
Go see All's Well at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. They make the play very enjoyable, and I trust that your experience with the play will end well.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
This production was a quick and delightful romp through Athens and its surrounding forest. Just eight actors—Just. Eight. Actors.—double and triple up to play all the roles.
There isn't a lot of heavy thought to take home from this show—and that's fine. If All's Well can be a problem comedy, this is a Dream from which all problems have taken to their heels and run away.
- The plot of the Indian child has been excised from this version. That simplifies things, but it also muddles the motivation of the feud between Titania and Oberon. I need to think more about that, but I don't think that cut served the play well.
- Titania's interest in Bottom is . . . well, it's a bit more on the PG-13 side than is the case with most productions. She's not just doting on him . . . we get some Sonnet 129 "lust in action" from her.
- This production's Puck is on the taller, solider, older, more majestic side. Most Pucks are on the spry, elfin side, ready to turn handsprings on stage to do Oberon's bidding. This Puck uses magic rather than physicality to accomplish Oberon's tasks. It gave him an ageless feel—like he's been around far longer than Oberon and serves him because that's more interesting than taking responsibility to make decisions on his own.
Again, go see the play—it's well worth seeing and offers a great deal of hilarity—particularly when the Rude Mechanicals put on their play.
Links: The Great River Shakespeare Festival. An album of photos from All's Well.
Bonus Image: Parolles (played by the inimitable—seriously, he can't ben imitabled —Christopher Gerson) & Lavatch (played, in his triumphant and much-ancipated return to the festival, by Jonathan Daly)