A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Through June 23 at the Yale University Theater. Presented by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, www.artidea.org
The Handspring Theater Company/Bristol Old Vic’s imported production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, making its U.S. debut, is endlessly imaginative and thought-provoking. Even for those, like me, who’ve seen Shakespeare’s play more times than they can count, this rendition has bold ideas that extend well beyond its ballyhooed use of puppets. For one thing, the puppets aren’t just representing obvious characters like the fairies. They represent EVERYBODY, even those who are already being given human shape. The true wonder of the production is its ensemble nature. Many boundaries are torn down, and Shakespeare’s script—which all too often is done as if it’s two separate plays, with two different classes cavorting in two different parts of Athens—is unified and strengthened in unforeseen ways. The challenges the company set for itself here are astounding. Puck, for instance, the reliable go-to guy for mischievous comic relief, is subdued here both in body and spirit. Puck is depicted by three men holding an array of gardening implements. The character has earthly relevance and isn’t some flitty brat. There’s also a hilariously literal transformation of Bottom into an ass. (Let me be the first critic of the show to not invoke the phrase “rude mechanical” in describing the effect.)
With only minor cuts in the scripts and endless between-the-lines readings, palimpsests and reinterpretations to augment it, this is one of the fullest and most thought-provoking Midsummer Night’s Dreams I have experienced. It’s not a walk in the park. It’s not a simple tale of fairies messing with mortals. It’s a fullblown fantasia, deep and rich and dark and airy and just plain overwhelming. Seeing this woody delight, I felt like I was smashed in the face with a board. And it felt good how it woke me up to how full and powerful this play can be.