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A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Stratford Festival

by Roderick H McKeown and Sarah Star. Written on 2016-04-25. Published in 2017 Issue 1.

For the production A Midsummer Night's Dream (2014, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)

In Stratford’s 2014 staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, director Christopher Abraham’s stated intent to “forge a sense of family and community as central to the play’s setting, and for this community to be inclusive, varied and diverse” was apparent from the outset, shaping an unusually conceptually sophisticated production. This ranged from minor touches, like making Egeus (Michael Spencer-Davis) deaf, speaking in sign through an interpreter, to the overarching framing conceit: this Dream was a wedding entertainment mounted after a backyard wedding ceremony. The players were a troupe of actors, celebrating the marriage of two actors in the company—and that’s not a gender-neutral noun, as we mean two male actors. Abraham’s production was lent emotional immediacy by the coincidental recent rulings in a number of American jurisdictions striking down bans on same-sex unions; those rulings were not in the headlines when rehearsals began. The play within the play drew upon the currency of love not legally sanctioned.

The Festival Theater was decorated throughout as for a wedding, with white bows on the end of every row of seats. The cast mingled freely with the audience, some of whom were actually led to believe that they were attending a special, celebratory performance. The actors ad-libbed freely: asking patrons how far they had come for the ceremony, whose side of the aisle they were on, and offering tissues. When we jokingly, knowingly, stated we were with the groom, we were corrected, and informed there were two grooms. The “newlyweds” were then led in blindfolded, prefiguring the confusions in the forest.

The most prominent directorial decision that followed on from this frame was the cross-casting of both Lysander (Tara Rosling) and Titania. Casting Hermia and Lysander as two women pleading for their love to be recognized translated Shakespeare’s slightly improbable legal scenario into a modern idiom. Many of Lysander’s lines—telling Demetrius “ Do you marry him”—took on wonderfully ironic meanings. Conversely, Hermia’s contempt for “ all the vows that ever men have broke” became a celebration of lesbian constancy. The patriarchal dynamic that underwrites Demetrius’ claim to Hermia is all the more evident, as this production highlighted more than most the brute power of the state to enforce heterosexual norms. Egeus’ deafness to his daughter’s arguments was symbolic, and it also had the effect of forcing Hermia (Bethany Jillard) to speak her own sentence, translating her father’s furious signs for the onstage audience. The silently watching Hippolyta’s (Maev Beaty) uneasy relationship with Theseus (Scott Wentworth) was rendered more obviously tense and coercive; she was attended by armed Amazons, and her surrender seemed at best conditional, and tested by this display of patriarchal dominance. This made wonderful sense of her conversation with Theseus on the hunt, as her references to Hercules became intentional goading, a deliberately cruel reference to a demi-god former lover. Wentworth’s assurance that his hounds are bred “of the Spartan kind” was an insecure lover offering what he knows is second best.

The ending of the lovers’ plot was carefully staged to acknowledge and resolve those tensions. Wentworth performed his reversal of the law as a placatory gift to his future queen, and matched word with gesture, offering each couple a flower, and, tentatively, one to Hippolyta. It was, in effect, another proposal of marriage to which he found relief in her acceptance.

The other reconciled couple was equally strikingly played. It was a gay wedding, and it wouldn’t have been a gay wedding without a healthy dose of camp. Filling those shoes—we couldn’t tell if they were pumps or slingbacks—on alternate nights were Evan Buliung (Titania at the performance we attended) and Jonathan Goad. Titania was emphatically the fairy queen. She sang falsetto. She danced. She ad-libed lines that reflected the cross-casting of the play and the sexuality of the grooms in the frame. In short, she was a one-woman assault on heteronormativity and predictability, occupying in many ways the role usually played by Puck (Chick Reid, somewhat sidelined in this production). At once stately and mischievous, and feminine while deconstructing femininity, Buliung’s performance, too, lent urgency and intellectual depth to the production. This was a fairy queen who could be maternal and self-consciously feminine, and then chest-bump her husband. We invite readers who saw Goad—a splendidly butch and sardonic Oberon in the performance we saw—as Titania to send us comments for inclusion in an updated review.

Goad’s Oberon was above all the purveyor of magic in the play, and the production walked a fine line between playing the magic for real and acknowledging the theatricality of the event. The lovers in the grip of the love potion responded physically to Oberon’s gestures, heads and feet raised off the ground, clearly in the throes of enchantment. But such moments were also played for laughs, as Goad sadistically held Demetrius in that difficult position—clawing for support at Goad’s belt—with a gleeful “nice abs!” Further magical effects were achieved by the liberal use of child labor to whack the lovers with branches, none too gently guiding their steps through the fog of the forest. As the lovers succumbed to exhaustion they were literally weighed down by their young cast-mates—Demetrius complained as he was overcome “I still have lines!”

The presence of the children—perhaps necessarily—meant that the production pulled some of its punches. When Titania’s guard (played by a child) was overcome by Puck’s blow dart, the fainting child was caught by an adult cast member. Similarly, the interlude between Bottom (an oddly subdued Stephen Ouimette) and Titania became all innocence—a conceptually questionable decision for a production that otherwise pushed the envelope on gender norms. The opposite effect was achieved by giving the Changeling a physical presence, tenderly held by Titania (who covered his ears when speaking of his mother’s death), and rather abstractedly won by Oberon. This was a real emotional defeat, even as Titania exited, seeming to promise that the subject was not closed.

The presence of child actors also led to occasional breaking of the frame. To have fairies sing Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” after Helena has been dismissed by Demetrius might make some sense; to have children sing a song of unrequited love at a wedding is—we would hope—improbable. Another song, too, tested the flexibility of the frame to the breaking point. After Pyramus and Thisbe—interrupted in this staging by an increasingly intoxicated Hippolyta—Bottom led the cast in a frame-breaking rendition of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.” In and of itself, this was no problem. But Wentworth then ended the raucous music as the host at a suburban wedding, warning the guests that “I have neighbors!” This, unfortunately, came before the fairies’ magical blessing of the three—sorry, with the grooms four—marriage beds. Rather than being a commentary on magic bleeding into the mundane, the ending seemed confusing and confused.

The newspaper reviews have ranged from the stellar (Nestruck in The Globe and Mail) to the witheringly dismissive (Ouzounian in the Star), and everything in between (Cushman in the Post). For some, it’s a matter of taste; pop music intervals in Shakespeare are not everyone’s cup of tea. Abraham’s staging had a lot going on, and perhaps it was difficult to keep so many plates in the air without breaking one or two. But the diversity that he placed front and center in his conception of the show necessarily meant an eclectic mix, and his queer sensibility in approaching the frame meant it would be frankly disappointing if some sensibilities were not offended. The esthetics of queer protest drew on carnivalesque displays of bad taste, and “the riot of the tipsy bacchanals” was not out of place in such a context. Abraham's show was new and queer—something audiences had to get used to.