Gutherie Theater, Minneapolis, MN: seen May 16th, 2008
Of the most performed plays in Shakespeare’s canon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is high on the list. It’s all about unrequited love and its many disguises. According to Wikipedia, it appears that Shakespeare may have been writing this play as a lighthearted anecdote while working on the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. To simplify its overcomplicated story, involving ever-changing alliances and desires, for those who’ve never read or seen the play at least once in its many adaptations: Four days before the wedding of Duke Theseus and Hippolyta (otherwise known as Queen of the Amazons), two couples run away from their parents to a forest led by the fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania. The two couples fall for the other couple’s half thanks to Puck, by far the play’s most memorable character and certainly one of Shakespeare’s most Dionysusian characters. He easily causes such havoc by rubbing a powerful love potion onto the sleeper’s eyes which causes the sleeper, upon awakening, to fall in love with the first living thing he or she sees. This provides for a particularly comic moment when Titania awakens to see the vainglorious bad actor Bottom, played by Stephen Pelinski, transformed as an ugly ass for the first time, and even funnier when she begs to kiss his face. Yet, one has to wonder how the audience would feel if the ass was not a donkey but a disabled person, say, with cerebral palsy; as we all know, not all disabled people can fit into most able-bodied people’s definitions of beauty, whatever they may be.
Of all the Guthrie productions that I’ve seen by Joe Dowling, Dream truly works on many levels. Yes, it’s gleefully over-the-top and filled with all sorts of pop cultural references, but in the world of fairies, literally anything goes. The fairy costumes designed by Paul Tazwell were pure eye candy, and the Rorschach blob-inspired set by Frank Hallinan Flood allowed for a fluid sense of staging, an easier shift from reality into the fantastic world of fairies. The huge cauldron-like ball that opened up like a clam to reveal a lavish boudoir was truly extravagant, a boudoir fitting for the queen, played with aplomb by Emily Swallow. There were moments when the fairies decked out in their full splendor prancing about made me feel as if I was watching Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music-free version of Cats on acid.
The production had a few standout performances: Erin Cherry as the First Fairy was amazing to watch in the few moments when she made her presence felt; Valeri Mudek was delightful and funny as Helena, torn between two men who’ve fallen in love with her (thanks to Puck’s sly mischievous potion), and the one she wants; and Randy Reyes as Frank Flute nearly stole the show in the play-within-the-play in which he and a group of truly bad actors, featuring the pompously overacting Bottom, present an amateurish playlet in honor of the Duke and Hippolyta’s wedding. Randy Reyes is a fine comic actor.
Most of the performers in this production were graduates of the University of Minnesota Guthrie’s BFA Program and Guthrie’s summer program, as well as those who had been in the theater’s 1997 production. I have not seen such a show that brimmed with so much vitality as this one, and the mix of experienced actors and young upstarts surely helped that energy.
Due to the complexity and cast size of this show, three American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters were used: Patty Gordon, Tammy A. Hansen, and Nancy Niggley. They all wore jackets or dresses that were more festive than usual; this worked very well with the exception of Ms. Hansen, who wore an orange-flavored dress that provided insufficient contrast against her skin. While the ASL translation was superb overall, the richness of Ms. Gordon and Ms. Niggley’s character work showed how much more Ms. Hansen can improve, in terms of varying her rhythm and facial expressions, especially when she interpreted Puck. However, I do applaud the Guthrie for including an interpreter of color, as we truly need to see more minorities involved in theater. And once again, the ASL Interpreted Show Program is exemplary; it provided a face picture for each of the actors playing important characters and indicated which interpreters would translate which characters. This helped keep track of who’s who on stage.
On a separate note, I disconcertedly learned from a wheelchair patron that while the theater does provide an accessible bathroom, it had taken her more than 15 minutes to visit the facilities and get back to her seat, which is longer than most intermissions. I was rather surprised and very disappointed because the theater is very new. No one seemed to have thought about the logistics of time for such wheelchair patrons, particularly if the show is longer than three hours. It is my hope that the Guthrie can find a way to streamline the amount of time required. For instance, the elevator next to the area set aside for wheelchair users shouldn’t necessitate looking around for someone with a card to operate it during intermission.
That said, if you haven’t seen this production, go see the fairies and laugh. You’ll come out of the theater with buoyant smiles plastered across your face.
Editor’s note: Editor’s Note: Access Press is pleased to have author and playwright Raymond Luczak as a regular theater reviewer. Mr. Luczak www.raymondluczak.com will be reviewing an ASL-interpreted plays the heading “From the front row.”