Originally published November 18, 2010 at 12:55 p.m., updated November 17, 2010 at 10:08 p.m.
“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was,” muses Bottom upon waking up in KU University Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This production evokes an extremely rare vision indeed: It is performed in its original pronunciation, how it would have been done 400 years ago. And on top of that, it’s a great show.
No original pronunciation play has ever been fully staged in North America, and OP performances are rarities no matter where you’re from. With help from linguist David Crystal, Paul Meier has resurrected the old dialect with uncommon precision and consistency. Accompanied by an energetic cast, elegant directing, and a vivid set, the play properly ushers original pronunciation into the U.S.
One of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a comedy that traces the fates of two troubled couples. Lysander and Hermia, two youths of Athens, are in love. But Hermia’s father insists that she marry another young man, Demetrius. The love triangle turns into a square when the audience learns that Helena, Hermia’s childhood friend, loves Demetrius. The requited lovers, Lysander and Hermia, plot to run away into the nearby forest so that they can marry. Helena learns this, tells Demetrius, and the four find themselves in a forest that’s chock-full of fairies that love to meddle in the affairs of humans.
Oberon, authoritative king of the fairies, feels the urge to match the mismatched lovers (he, too, has been estranged from his elegant fairy wife Titania), so he sends the mischievous Puck after a magical, love-inducing flower that can be used to inculcate love. Puck finds the flower but applies its magic to Lysander instead of his intended target Demetrius, throwing the four youths into chaos.
Austin Robinson plays an earnest Lysander and Ben Sullivan an austere Demetrius. Their demeanors, along with a nerdy but practical Helena (Lynsey Becher) stand in Spartan contrast to a dreamy Hermia (Hannah JoBeth Roark). Princess-like Hermia generates laughs with her ridiculous demeanor –– she insists on dragging luggage and even a wedding dress (in anticipation of her big day) through the forest. At the end of her first day in the woods, she flashes a flirty, innocent smile at bedtime, batting her eyes at her husband-to-be Lysander and saying, “But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy / Lie further off, in human modesty.”
Glasses-wearing, cardigan-donning, frizzy-haired Helena embodies someone else entirely. At one point, both Lysander and Demetrius have been charmed into loving Helena when both spurned her before. Helena, thinking it a trick and knowing that it cannot be true love, protests, “O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent / To set against me for your merriment.” She does so as she stomps across the stage, one high heel on and one off, ridiculously bouncing up and down, full of fury. But the men feel this love surely as they felt it before, as Lysander and Demetrius desperately fight over her missing shoe and other personal belongings that Helena sheds in her emphatic, arm-flailing speech of scorn. It is a scene that the play executes with great skill – not only do the acting and directing build an interesting character, they simultaneously emphasize thematic elements and generate uproarious laughter.
John Staniunas plays a stern but merry fairy king Oberon, and his minion Puck (J.T. Nagle) haunts the stage for much of the play. This Puck is a kleptomaniac, grabbing the odd hat, shoe or bracelet that drops from the struggling couple of couples.
Puck discovers another group of forest travelers, the rude mechanicals, who use the forest as rehearsing ground for their upcoming play. Scott Cox plays a fabulous, hilarious mechanical named Bottom, who struts and frets across the stage, dominating it any time he is upon it. Bottom is a dolt, an exaggerator who plays his assigned Pyramus role as if he were trying to displace mountains with his gestures, or beat down stone walls with excruciatingly enunciated consonants.
Delbert Unruh’s set captivates from the moment one walks into the theater. Entering the theater is a bit like strolling into a dream, replete with wisps, chirping fairies, and a dreamy lute tune. Audience seating surrounds the stage. Moth, Mustardeed, or another chortling fairy send click-clack calls, examining the audience members as if they were peculiar visitors. When the play was over, I found myself unwilling to leave its enchanting world, which still seems that it must exist somewhere, if only in dreams.
Dreams and visions pervade the play, and Shakespeare’s script likens dreams to the theatergoing experience. The main characters often dream (or think they’re dreaming) in the enchanted forest, and their actions within the “dream” have real ramifications. The playwright reminds us that our drives, our needs and desires, often our most integral life goals are the products of our “seething brains,” that our actions are predicated by imagined events just as often as they are by real ones.
Near the end of his adventure, Bottom says in original pronunciation, “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.” One cannot fully recreate the experience that KU’s University Theatre has dreamt up –– the closest retelling is akin to seeing with an ear or hearing with an eye.
Though Puck’s concluding soliloquy states that the play is but a dream, it is a dream well worth believing in, and it’s a treat to behold. Go see it.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs November 17, 18, 19, and 20 at 7:30 p.m. and November 21 at 2:30 p.m. in Stage Too! at Murphy Hall.