“Enchanting.” That’s the best word to describe Shelton State’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By all rights, the play should be anything but coherent. Shakespeare overburdens the stage with troubled couples: Duke Theseus (Logan Pecukonis) hopes to soon marry Hippolyta (Katie Gee), but this war-won bride is a bit cold-shouldered at the play’s opening; Lysander (Michael Manos) plans to run away with Hermia (Mary Harless) to escape Hermia’s meddling mother, Egeus (Kanesha Holifield); Helena (Psacoya Guinn) was betrothed to Demetrius (Charles Barkley), but he now loves Hermia; and the King and Queen of the Fairies, Oberon (Kuper Bank) and Titania (Rachel Hammonds), have fallen out over the possession of a changeling child. Add in the bumbling Rude Mechanicals (Parker Files, James Julian, Michael Privette, Justin Strickland, Jeffery Strickland, and Tyler Yessick) and the mischievous sprite Puck (Kat Mills) and you have comic complications of such proportions that no sane dramatist or director could make sense of it all.
Fortunately, this is Shakespeare: somehow ninety minutes of stage time and a few magic flowers can sort the madness and leave us with four happy couples. Director Michael Carr (Chair of the Shelton State Theatre Department) follows the Bard’s lead and weaves a mid-spring spell, transforming the courtyard of Shelton State into an enchanted forest, a bare platform stage decked with tie-died tarps and silk flowers, surrounded by park benches and inhabited by the fairies, a troop of Titania’s servants (Allison Jones, Amber McCarley, Abigail Wilson, Autumn Fuller, Shelby Ballard, Emily Huebner, Brynn Wint, Madison Grey, and Margaret Carr). The fairies are the best emblem of Carr’s directorial vision: he doesn’t stage a chorus of ballerinas, or some post-modern personifications of human desire. Instead, he stages a chorus of young girls dressed in tie-died t-shirts and peasant dresses. Amidst this chorus, Titania seems to be a mother goddess watching over her children, while Oberon plays the animalistic Pan, a threat to the forest’s peacefulness. By using a group of hippie children to tap into the imagery of the 1970’s, Carr emphasizes community, love, and peace, offering a promise of idyllic happiness. He bypasses the potential problems of the play by focusing on the magic of laughter and love.
The two young couples of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Hermia/Lysander and Helena/Demetrius—have a chemistry less of romance and more of comic conflict. When Helena first confronts Demetrius in the forest, he spurns her, calling her his “spaniel,” his dog. This line is often played for pathos, emphasizing the poor treatment Helena receives at Demetrius’ callous hands. Here, however, Hermia redoubles her efforts to win Demetrius’ heart. She’s completely smitten, and her comic earnestness takes the focus. In a later scene, Lysander and Demetrius have both fallen under Oberon’s love spell and now love Helena. When Hermia accuses Helena of beguiling Lysander and Demetrius with her feminine whiles, the two men imitate football players, growling and forming a defensive line behind which Helena cowers. The love spell frees these characters—and the actors—to be hyperbolically passionate. Thus, even when the morning comes and the spells are (mostly)broken, the enchantment continues. Theseus’ court finishes the play with laughter, choosing a midsummer mindset over the conflict of the play’s opening.
The courtyard poses problems of its own, however: the audience space is wide and narrow, the wide lawn swallows all sound, and there’s little natural lighting after 7:30pm, even on a late April evening. As such, Carr chose to wire the performance: basic stage lights for visibility and wireless microphones for sound. While this setup lets Carr have the ambience of an outdoor performance without the headaches (besides the threat of rain), it comes at a price. The mics do not afford the actors any nuance to their performances. Quieter emotions are stifled by the equipment. For example, when Hermia fears that her mother will separate her from Lysander, her sadness is quiet and unaffecting. When she moves to loud anger, the sudden shift in volume cracks the sound from the mic. Yet in a later scene, Hermia rails against Helena for turning Lysander and Demetrius against her, at one point even leaping on Lysander’s back and riding him around the stage. Here her anger swells to fill the space, working with the equipment rather than against it.
In such circumstances, playing well means playing big, and no one plays bigger than Bottom (James Julian). The Rude Mechanicals, led by a British-accented Peter Quince (Parker Files), appear less as a group of country rustics and more as a troupe of enthusiastic amateur actors. In this context, Julian’s Bottom is the ham to end all hams. He bellows, brays, and enjoys perhaps the longest mock-death scene in all of Shakespeare. His early scene-stealing seems to set the tone for the rest of the performance: when Lysander and Demetrius fall under the love-spell of the purple flower, their change in demeanor (complete with musical queue) is as hyperbolic as Shakespeare intended. Such sudden shifts of affection are absurd and laughable (even in real life). Carr’s actors recognize that absurdity and embrace it. Thus the overplayed, comedic moments in Midsummer feel more genuine than the subtle, dramatic ones. The enchantment lies in the excess.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through Thursday April 28th at Shelton State Community College. All performances start at 7:30pm in the outside courtyard, located behind the Admissions and Financial Aid offices. Admission is free. The show runs about 90 min with one intermission. In the event of rain the show will move to the college’s main atrium.