What do floating columns, a fairy that travels by roller blades and a group of Stooge-like blue-collar workers rehearsing a play all have in common? They are all brilliant, fresh twists in the surprisingly modern Emerson production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Directed by Melia Bensussen, A Midsummer Night's Dream has been reinvented for the Emerson stage. Cut down to 90 minutes from the usual two hours, the play is intended for adults and children 12 years and over. It is stylish and smart due to the renovations it has undergone in the costume, scenery and acting departments.
Bensussen said she hoped, for a welcome reaction from audiences. "They'll be entertained in the truest sense of the word. That Shakespeare won't feel like just some old, dead guy." Bensussen need not fear: Shakespeare is definitely alive and kicking at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
At the student matinee, a hush fell over the young audience as the curtains opened to reveal the city of Athens. A large, gray platter tilted at an angle towards the audience displaying several Grecian designs covered the floor. A brown and black fret pattern outlined a perfect blue sky as three mammoth Grecian columns floated mysteriously to stage right. This is a beautiful fantasy setting indeed, and it is suited perfectly for Shakespeare's fantastic play about youth, fairies and true love.
The play focuses on three separate plots that, in a single night in an enchanted forest, intertwine. The first plot centers on Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius. Hermia loves Lysander but the Duke, Theseus, has ordered her to marry Demetrius. Helena loves Demetrius, but he loves Hermia. Helena tells Demetrius about Hermia and Lysander's plan to run away from Athens hoping that Demetrius will forget Hermia and fall for Helena instead. Still with me?
At the same time, five workers, known as the mechanicals, have been hired to put on a play at Theseus' wedding the next day. They rehearse their play, Pyramus and Thisbe, in the same forest where Hermia and Lysander have planned to hide out.
As the play moves from Athens to the forest, home to the Fairy King, Oberon, and Queen, Titania, the Grecian designs are removed from the platter to reveal holes. The fret pattern disappears and the columns magically drift to the side. Long strips of blackish-brown sparkling mesh descend from above to represent the enchanted trees. The bright lighting fades as blue and purple shadows creep on to the stage: nighttime has fallen.
On this particular night in the forest, the Fairy King and Queen are at ends with each other over a boy the Queen has adopted. To get back at Titania, Oberon has his fairy servant, Puck fetch a specific flower with magical properties. Puck, in a blue cap, shimmery cape, fuzz-trimmed pea coat and roller blades, dabs the flower's dew on Titania's sleeping eyes. This causes Titania to fall madly in love with whomever, or whatever, she first spies when she wakes.
Taking the prank a step further, he turns one of the mechanicals, Nick Bottom, into an ass. When Titania awakes and hears the ass singing, she immediately falls in love. She takes the transformed Bottom on as her lover, treating him like a king.
After witnessing Helena's profession of love for Demetrius and his obvious disdain for her, Oberon has Puck search out the man in "Athenian garments" (in this case, a suit), and sprinkle the dew on his eyes. However, Puck mistakenly bewitches Lysander, also dressed in a suit. When Puck attempts to correct his mistake, he only delves deeper into trouble.
The costumes for the young Athenians are based on Middle Eastern and European fashion. They are edgy and contemporary with pencil skirts, baby-doll dresses, business suits and long trains. According to Midsummer's online study guide, costume designer Raphael Jaen intended for the mechanicals to wear pieces such as fedoras, overalls and newsboy caps that emulated "contemporary indie actors, pop idols, trade workers, skaters, sagers, scallies and street performers."
At one point, Bottom wears a patched-up leather jacket that looks like it once belonged to Billy Idol.
It may look like the characters have just walked on stage in their street clothes. However, it is the actors' fresh approach that helps this play attain its current appeal.
It is also the superb physical comedy which help to update this Renaissance play. Hilarious chase scenes, characters popping out of holes in the set, and other cartoonish effects garnered laughs from the middle to high school aged audience as well as the chaperones. Looney Tunes could not have done a better job.
This updated version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is fresh, entertaining and fun and it is still full of the original wit and wisdom intended by its playwright. Melia Bensussen has certainly accomplished her goal of modernizing this timeless tale. She has taken Shakespeare's romantic comedy and has made it engaging and accessible for those too young to understand the frustration behind Puck's famous line, "Lord! What fools these mortals be." Through her vision, Shakespeare's comedy about man's maddening pursuit of love is still thriving in Emerson's elaborate and electrifying A Midsummer Night's Dream.
A Midsummer Night's Dream will run from Friday through Saturday at 8 pm with a Saturday matinee at 2 pm.