This is the time of year when it seems likes every theatre company within a day’s drive is about to stage Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I really do understand why companies are so attracted to Midsummer, beautiful Renaissance comedy that it is. This play revels in the disorienting effects of a balmy and fairy-ridden summer clime, something we are definitely on the brink of here in Texas (minus the fairies, although the heat can do funny things to you).
The wonderful thing about Midsummer is that it’s well designed enough to “play itself.” It’s almost too easy to garner laughs, and the romantic tension between the characters is so delightful and stirring primarily because of the circumstances Shakespeare gives them, not necessarily because of the actors’ skills. There’s no denying it: this is a fun play. Even the most unexperienced players can pull off that unforgettable play within a play in Act 5—I mean, have you ever not laughed during that scene?
But I’ve seen Midsummer performed so many times by so many different companies that I’m coming to an odd point in my relationship with it. Each subsequent production makes the play feel more weathered to me, and I haven’t been able to put my finger on what the issue is until now…
I’ve finally figured it out: it’s the gimmicks.
Each production I’ve seen lately has new requirements for how the show must wow the audience: all the fairies are en pointe, Puck is a trained gymnast, Titania is dressed in black leather chaps and hangs from cirque de soleil ribbons, and everyone else on stage either wears neon color-blocked costumes or complete camouflage. I once saw a production write a song for the mechanicals that acted as a refrain throughout the five acts, sort of a mash-up of famous lines set to a campy waltz—entertaining, but definitely not in Shakespeare’s text. To top that, one production made Puck rap in iambic pentameter. (That one was fascinating, but I’m not sure how much it served the play.) Oh, and the glitter.
So much glitter.
What’s frustrating is that you notice a production’s reliance on these gimmicks almost immediately. And, if you’re like me, this tends to color your impression of the rest of the show since the gimmicks read like an overcompensation for unpracticed acting or a lack of understanding of the play text. A back handspring does not make Puck more menacing. Colors not found in nature should not go on fairy wings. Titania just needs to act like she’s the queen of the fairies for us to believe her—she doesn’t have to descend from the fly space in a sparking, bedazzled bubble. And Helena doesn’t need to affect a screeching speaking voice (think Fran the Nanny) in order for us to catch her comedy, especially if the production wants us to catch her dark comedy. I don’t mean to criticize too harshly; after all, these productions were certainly entertaining. But I’m just not sure these “extras” are entirely necessary.
This is why: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for me, is a celebration of what the imagination can do when left to its own devices. It pushes you to wonder what shenanigans and delights you’d imagine if the only canvas you had was a buzzing wilderness. It proudly asks the question, “What are our imaginations capable of when we intentionally don’t offer them help?” Gimmicks, extras, and flashy moments undermine the audience’s own imaginative faculties.
I know it’s possible to play Midsummer well without the bells and whistles. Perhaps the greatest production I’ve seen of the play was produced at an outdoor theater in the middle of a botanical garden, played by a cast full of eager high school students who sweated their way through all five acts with Georgia cicada buzz in the background. Not too much embellishment or theatricals here when it came to setting: as viewers, we believed we were in the Athenian forest, right at the cusp of nightfall, because we couldn’t help but think we were in a forest. The nighttime sounds and the heat were disorienting for everyone, actors and audience included. But this only offered space to let the imagination run wild in the vibrant scenery. The production invited playfulness, and that “play” wasn’t limited to the actors.
This performance stripped Midsummer bare, down to text and actors planted in the middle of a real garden. If we think about the context of Midsummer’s initial purpose—a wedding play—a moveable, non-complicated, and actor-driven production makes sense. Don’t get me wrong: there was definitely glitter. Yet everything about this production announced an appreciation for the text and a celebration of the performers who interpreted that text. In some ways, I think a pared down production shows deep respect for the imagination of the audience who attends the performances.
This production, which still feels vivid to me looking ten years into the past, allowed our imaginations to truly play. What a gift for a production to give.
It’s hard to recognize that gift through all the gimmicks, though. I will still always love Midsummer, but, if I may play the backseat dramaturg for a minute: can we please lose all the extras?
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If you’re unconvinced by the sometimes wonderful effects of pared down Shakespeare, consider how performances like this one by David Tennant—of a single sonnet, no less!—just take the cake.