by Jim Bulman
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, and little wonder. In four parallel plots, it offers something for everyone: the marriage of the mythical king of Athens to the Amazon queen he has conquered; the romantic adventures of four young lovers, defiant of their elders, drawn from Roman comedy; the intervention of fairies in mortal affairs – not those lovable sprites of Disney, but powerful figures akin to Greek and Roman deities; and finally, the attempt of local craftsmen, here called “rude mechanicals,” to present a most inappropriate play in celebration of the royal marriage – a play that echoes the tragic plot of Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare wrote in the same year (1595).
For centuries Midsummer was regarded as a light entertainment and was performed with an emphasis on spectacle: lovers raced through magical forests populated by live rabbits, winged fairies descended from the flies, and scenes at court, particularly the wedding, provided an opportunity for lavish staging, costuming, and music. All this changed in the latter half of the twentieth century, when a return to performance practices akin to those of the Elizabethan theatre – bare stages with little scenery, emphasis on continuous action without scene breaks, and a presentational acting style – transformed Midsummer into a more adult entertainment. And with those changes came an exploration of the play’s darker potentials: the cruelty of patriarchal authority, the exploitation of women, the questioning of love as a capricious and arbitrary motivation for human behavior, and the mockery of social class distinctions.
Shakespeare, of course, makes none of this explicit. His plays are open to almost infinite interpretative possibilities, and Midsummer can still be, and often is, played as a delicate romantic comedy that affirms those beliefs about love, marriage, and the power of imagination that we hold dear. But fairies aren’t always what they seem; mythical Greek heroes aren’t always wise; and lovers don’t always wind up with the right partner. See what you make of the choices made by the actors in tonight’s performance, and then decide if you share Theseus’s skepticism when he protests, “I never may believe / These antique fables nor these fairy toys,” or agree with Hippolyta when she counters that the story of the night “grows to something of great constancy, / But, howsoever, strange and admirable.”