How do you spruce up one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays and manage to send the audience through tears of laughter in the process? Hart House Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes that possible. Directed by Jeremy Hutton, whose past directions include Arcadia, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet, the classic tale of love, sex and magic departs from structured Athenian society, and takes shape in mischievous Victorian England, fully equipped with gloomy lampposts, black umbrellas and suit-clad suitors. “This spin, or any modernization of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is almost always expected, as if a wildly original setting was the only prerequisite for a successful production,” Hutton explains. As a result, the director doesn’t veer too far from the original and ensures that key elements, such as the forest, remain intact.
Very much a sum of the play’s parts, the forest is more than just a setting. All magical instances take place in the fairies’ domain, but more prominently, the forest sparks the licentious behaviour inherent to the fairies, in all those who pass through. Hutton therefore has fun with this essential component and implements another spin, in which the traditional fairy community is substituted by a group of dark-magic gypsies.
“You can have fairies without wings, but never fairies without magic. No matter what spin you take.”
Composed of many plays-within-a-play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream initially focuses on the relationships that form and fall apart between Hermia (Adrianna Prosser), Lysander (Andy Cockburn), Demetrius (Andrew Knowlton) and Helena (Carly Chamberlain). Hermia desires Lysander as her husband but is forced by her father, Egeus (Rob Candy), to marry Demetrius. Demetrius in turn is fuelled by a lust for Hermia and spends his time in futile pursuit of her, while Helena’s unrequited love for Demetrius grows stronger as he pushes her away. This jumbled mess of love and hate is of its own nature, but when the fairies intervene and sprinkle magical juice into their eyes, true love is squandered and false love is stirred.
Oberon (Kevin McGarry), the King of Fairies, orders Robin the Puck (Borcé Petrovski) to fix his foolish misdoings with the Athenians, but Oberon himself teaches his fairy Queen, Titania (Carolyn Hall), a lesson in love. The juice makes her fall madly in love with a man whose head has been turned into an ass. The unfortunate soul is Bottom (Neil Silcox), a member of the ridiculous theatre troupe, the Rude Mechanicals, who occupy a large portion of the play as they practice their own play they will perform at Duke Theseus’ (Andrew Dundass) and Duchess Hippolyta’s (Margaret Thompson) wedding. The intertwining of all three plots occurs, and the resulting situations create an upheaval of the most hilarious kind.
The dynamic between the actors and actresses in Hutton’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s sexiest comedy is easily the reason for the play’s huge success. The relationships between the Athenian lovers are conventional at the start, but transform into hysterical obsessions when Cockburn and Knowlton run around the stage in their skivvies. Their slapstick antics and lovesick demeanour are so in sync that the interchangeability of Demetrius and Lysander ultimately comes through with ease.
Prosser is particularly apt at conveying Hermia’s self-admiration and eventual breakdown after both suitors kick her to the curb and fall in love with Helena. Prosser’s theatricality, bursting with pouty tantrums and tearful outbursts, closely rivals Chamberlain’s melancholic disposition as Helena; she establishes her initial frustration at Hermia’s more desirable eyes and Demetrius unreciprocated feelings, but nonetheless is able to transform herself into a crazed stalker-like figure whenever Demetrius draws near.
Chamberlain flawlessly turns hostile when Helena believes she is being mocked after the suitors’ declaration of their newfound love for her. The catfight that ensues between the two women is quite amusing, and draws heavily on modern situations involving home wreckers and jealous ex-lovers.
The band of gypsy fairies is one of the play’s most alluring features. Their time on stage is accompanied by exotic, Eastern-type music to which they partake in wonderfully traditional Gypsy-style dances that were choreographed by Ashleigh Powell. Brandon Kleiman’s set design is also stunning, as colourful lanterns are lowered from the ceiling during the dances and hang like stars over an elaborately created Gypsy caravan.
Borcé Petrovski’s portrayal of the maniacal and mischievous Puck is exceptionally dark and mysterious; he jumps and rolls in and out of scenes, and is skillfully imperceptible to other characters as well as the audience at times. Kevin McGarry’s performance as Oberon is sultry and commanding despite Oberon’s general inability to control Titania, and his level of confidence is spot-on, as he flaunts Oberon’s ability to command mortals at the snap of his fingers. Puck and Oberon are further mystified by the snaking, black tattoos emblazoned across their heads and arms, much to the skill of make-up designer Larissa Palaszczuk. Titania’s impish behaviour is effortlessly conveyed by Carolyn Hall, who manipulates and seduces the men in the play with ease. Yet by far the most side-splitting performances belong to the actors that comprise the Rude Mechanicals. Their well-executed portrayals of over-the-top players preparing for their production of Pyramus and Thisbe left the crowd guffawing and tearing up whenever they took the stage.
Thomas Gough plays Peter Quince, the troupe’s exasperated manager who must keep the other dim-witted players in line, lest they completely run amuck with their bountiful imaginations. Jim Armstrong’s rendering of a wall and Max Shkvorets’ role as moonshine are hysterical as both roles are pointless in the Rude Mechanicals’ play, but their actual roles as Snout and Starveling nicely capture the naivety of both characters. While the players’ clownish personas are enough to make the audience keel over in laughter, Neil Silcox’s interpretation as Bottom truly sent the play into a stratosphere of hilarity. Silcox manages to make both Bottom and his character as Pyramus so ridiculously hysterical that I was personally in tears, and he received audience applause throughout many of his monologues.
Performances such as these just go to show that Shakespearean comedies remain highly entertaining, no matter how boring high school students believe them to be. While already humorous in text, the performances literally come to life on stage. A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs until December 5 at Hart House Theatre on the St. George campus. Call the U of T Box Office at (416) 978-8849 or visit www.harthousetheatre.ca for showtimes and ticket prices.