Sunday, 22 June 2014

Bard's Dream has moments of brilliance

Why this play still rocks 410 years later : No question why A Midsummer Night's Dream remains one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies. Simply because the line between reality and phantasy, between truth and distortion, between perception and reflection is usually wavy. In each one of us.

And no more so than each time we lay our heads down to snooze. Up! pops the moist and fertile landscape of dreams that lurks behind our prefrontal cortex. Dreams that often take on more seeming-reality in their vividness than, say, drudging through dull chores on a grey and chilly Vancouver June afternoon. Hippocampus-spawned movies that usually involve lots of action and fecund visions, seldom anything reasonable or rational.

As brain researcher Rober J. Hoss put it about our dreamscapes : "We are essentially paralyzed, and much of the logic we depend on to construct the perception of a rational world is off-line." [Science of Dreaming, (Innersource), 2005.] My oh my. Seems Shakespeare got all this intuitively & poetically four centuries back.

The persona we become in our dreams -- are these our alter egos, our repressed desires, our fears given face and shape? Psychologist Carl Jung seems to think so -- all of the above. "Nights through dreams tell the myths forgotten by the day." [Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Vantage), 1963.]

Did Shakespeare intend to promote these concepts? Well, his intuition notwithstanding, mostly I go with the view WS simply wanted to make people laugh and squirm and fret a bit and then have everything come out hunky-dory in the fullness of time. And maybe make a few pence for Lord Chamberlain's Men, his hand-picked thespian troupe.

Plot & character refresher : Greek myth-guy Theseus conquers the Queen of the Amazons Hippolyta in battle but now is to wed her. Enter four horny mortals : Hermia. Lysander. Helena. Demetrius. Hermia loves Lysander and he her. Helena is Hermia's BFF. She has the hots for Demetrius, but he is also all aswoon over Hermia. He can't stand Helena's persistent fawning and begging. But Hermia's mad Dad has vowed to kill her or send her to a nunnery if she doesn't marry his choice for her, Demetrius. To escape, the kids run away into the woods. Demetrius takes up breathless pursuit with Helena galumping behind.

The local bower happens to be the realm of king fairy Oberon and queen fairy Titania. They are dead stuck in a mutual marital hissy-fit. Lots of yada-yada blowback between them. Seems Titania kidnapped an orphaned Indian boy. Oberon wants the changeling to be his chief hunter. Titania says not in this lifetime. Enter Puck, Oberon's maven mischief-maker. Oberon sets Puck off to gather pansies because their juice is magic. Obie has plans to trick Titania out of her preoccupation with the changeling by putting a spell on her so she falls in love with an ass.

But he has heart, too. He eavesdropped and heard Helena's plaintive cries over Demetrius. So he also tells Puck to juice the sleeping Demetrius's eyelids because pansy spirits make people fall in love with the first person they see upon awaking. Who will just "happen" to be his unrequited pursuer Helena. But Puck mistakenly squirts Lysander instead. And when Lysander wakes up, he too "quite coincidentally" sees Helena first-off. Dumbstruck thanks to the pansy-potion, he dumps fiance Hermia in a nanosecond and slathers attention on Helena.

So to un-match and re-match these many mismatched lovers, Puck next squirts Demetrius. Who also "just happens" to see Helena first upon waking up. Now both of these gentry dandies are under the same spell -- "in love" -- with the previously-spurned Helena. Hermia's got nothing & nobody. With this abrupt and surprising 180 degree turnabout x2, Helena for her part thinks all three of them are in cahoots simply to humiliate her ("bullying" in today's jargon). Puck finds all this great fun, sport & amusement, Oberon not so much.

Into this mix throw a ragtag clutch of local tradesmen who are wannabe actors when they down tools. Puck thinks them fools. In Elizabethan lingo he refers to them as "a crew of patches, rude mechanicals". They hope to perform a comedy at Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding reception.

They're in the woods, too, to rehearse, ostensibly in secret. Puck stumbles on them and transforms their goofiest member, a verbose weaver named Bottom, into a donkey. Upon rousing out of her lunar / loonie / pansy snooze, Titania sees Bottom and falls arse over teakettle for him.

Sorting out these silly shenanigans so the pursuers all snag their quarry in the end -- with hugs and squeezes and marriage vows -- is how AMND plays itself out.  (N.B. Until Thursday this week I had never read AMND, nor until tonight have I ever seen it performed on stage or film. So my commentary needs be seen through that lens.)

That was then, this is now : The key to Shakespeare for most contemporary audiences is to make him "accessible", trite though the word's become. We've been schooled in Seinfeldisms, Letterman's top 10, Pinter, Mamet, Carlin, Maher. Short snappers, not iambic pentameter blank verse. So it's almost always, as in our dreams, robust and snappy action that directors want to spring on today's playgoers to catch their attention.

Director Dean Paul Gibson's remount of his last effort at AMND for Bard in 2006 has, no question, its robust and snappy moments that spring viewers to life. It is a sum of parts, however, that exceed in their momentary cleverness the impact of the whole. Part of the problem is Billy Bard's script. From first reading it Thursday to seeing it performed Saturday, my conclusion is the "rude mechanicals'" wedding reception play featuring Bottom is way, way too much verbiage & silliness way, way too late in a play that should end a dozen or so minutes before it does (2 hours, 15 minutes running time + intermission). But that is a 2014 response from a newby viewer, likely quite out of step with BB's 1594 audience and their tastes + expectations.

Production values : As always, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze's vision of Shakespeare set against English Bay and the north shore mountains is a singular production value that sets BotB apart from other more cloistered iterations in Stratford or Ashland. 

And whether Vancouver's unique Vanier Park setting and this region's typical weather inspired it or not, scenery designer Kevin McAllister's umbrella motif is a superb touch. From the opening rush of blackcoats with brolly's -- like ravens descending on Stanley Park -- that visual hook worked wonderfully well. The oversize (12-foot diameter) and upended stitch-piece version mid-stage right that serves as a sleeping platform saves, nicely indeed, an otherwise austere and bare white arch'd set of risers that work but don't excite in the least.

Highest kudos must go to veteran BotB costume designed Mara Gottler for her sumptuous & spangly & earthy & gossamer & royal & whimsical & Elizabethan-timely & Pride Week-worthy & just out-there costuming with all their myriad colours and textures and contraptions. Best of all was Oberon's sweeping capes. Absolutely stunning and perfect for AMND's King Elf. Just to take in costumes alone might make the trip up the Kits seawall worth it, i.m.o.

Sound designers Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe come in for a round of snaps, too, for the variety of genres (from sitar riffs to hip-hop to country to traditional love song ballads) they punctuate the action with. Very cleverly integrated and eclectic notes as always aided and abetted by overhead helicopters, laughing partyers in the park behind and the Saturday night cruisin' West End street hum like a piper's drone underneath. The Pearl Fishers duet, all six bars, was inspired.

Acting out the script : There is no actor in this version of AMND who just reaches out and grabs viewers as "the" knockout of the night. That said -- the parts exceed the whole, again -- my personal favourite was Sereana Malani as Helena. What I found most compelling about her was her ability do be "hip" in the hip-hop cadence of language that Director Gibson wanted to effect, but also her enunciative clarity of BB's original diction and dynamics, doing them complete justice. Kyle Rideout as Puck had many clever turns, lit.&.fig, rolling around the stage. Major huzzahs at play's end. And Scott Bellis as Bottom did the part proud as both the yabbery-jabbery Pyramus and as the appointed ass. Equal vigour from the folks at curtain. As Hermia, Claire Hesselgrave was a particularly "robust and snappy" presence throughout her time in the limelight.

A few quibbles : To "contemporize" a 4-centuries-old script to me doesn't mean to get over-cute. Which happens here. One scene alone did it for me. Puck, after putting the pansy spell (mistakenly) on the sleeping Lysander, then takes Lysander's limp hand to have him pantomime some dozy masturbating act. After which he hops upstage and gratuitously slaps Hermia on her bum on his exit skip. Why? Such Adam Sandler gimmicks cheapen the production immensely. 

The asides to the audience ("Whatever!" and "Oh, angry!") just diminish a script that works quite well without such Millennial - lip.  

Puck's kiss of Oberon and Obie's slap didn't make it, seemed contrived, but Puck's leap later on into Oberon's arms worked great in its slapstick surprise. 

Best sequence by far : The "cat fight" scene was excellently conceived, choreographed and executed : this is the "bullying" scene where Helena accuses Hermia and Lysander (Chirag Naik) and Demetrius (Daniel Doheny) of conspiring to humiliate her. From blocking to stage business to execution of lines to emotional grasp to humour and overall pathos, this was a wonderful stage moment to witness. Well done all.

Who gonna like : Aficionados of WS surely will enjoy this show and probably find themselves like the majority on opening night in standing-o posture. Would I introduce a teen or a visiting family member unaccustomed to Shakespeare to this show? Likely not. Simply for the length and the lack of an overall compelling presence or "whole". But worth seeing regardless? No question! Go for the various parts and enjoy them piece by piece.


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