Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ashland: A Midsummer Night's Dream

WE ENDED OUR WEEK at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with an aftenoon performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of four Shakespeare plays we saw last week. I wish I could say this was one of the best productions I've seen: it wasn't. Like The Comedy of Errors it was a "concept" production, and it suffered more: where Errors was an out-and-out adaptation, this was simply relocated to unspecified but post-Hippie America, nudged over the top by its director (Mark Rucker, in his OSF debut), and thrown out of balance by reducing the central romantic quartet to nearly the clown status of the rude mechanicals.

But, hey, there's lots to like here, once you accept the director's premise. It's silly to grouse about such things; we in the audience aren't seeing Shakespeare, we're seeing this one production of one of his plays; and there's no point complaining that this production isn't another.

The play opens with a coup de theâtre: the fairies are Cockettes, their familiar Shakespeare songs thrown defiantly across the footlights (when they're not in fact within the audience itself) in Punk attitude. Theseus is a rich bored dude, vaguely between arriviste Trump and Vegas operator; Hippolyta is amused and only slightly resentful. Egeus is Hermia's mother, not father, but one can get past that easily enough.

It's the quartet that's constantly annoying. The roles are well taken — I refer you to the cast roster — but they're directed to clown it up. This minimizes the distance between them and the genuinely funny Pyramus-and-Thisbe troupe, which is bad enough: Shakespeare has invented a brilliant four-layer world in this play, and to my mind each layer needs its own distinct landscape.

And particularly the lovers. Their lines are among Shakespeare's most poignant, most poetic; and far too many of those lines are distorted by oddly pitched accent, uneven dynamics, and pointedly contradictory sight-gags. Hermia is funny, no doubt, as an upscale valley girl, but that doesn't mean Helena has to be loutish.

The result of all this is a Dream that succeeds completely with Oberon and Titania (and Puck); with Peter Quince, Flute, Snout, Snug, Starveling, and a fine funny Bottom. Maybe that's enough: the audience loved it.
Shakespeare:A Midsummer Night's Dream, running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, through Nov. 2.

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