Monday, April 23, 2012

When Everything Seems Triple

This post is a month late, but I think it’s appropriate that I put it up on April 23, Shakespeare’s acknowledged birthday. So join me and all the bloggers at in wishing the old guy a happy birthday. Then read my old review.
About a month ago I took my students to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Utah Shakespeare Festival company on tour. This was a little bit of a risk for me, since a third of the students who would be at the production had read the play, none of them my own students, but all of them at my instigation. (Their teachers had asked me if there was another good play to read with ninth graders than Romeo and Juliet, and I gave them that suggestion. And teaching materials. And ideas. And copies of the play. So you see, I bear a good bit of blame here.) Instead, I gave my students hints about the play for months, then read them a picture book edition the day before—a “Shakespeare Can Be Fun” adaptation I had picked up at the Folger Library last summer.
And they loved it.
There is something magical about seeing Shakespeare performed live. Nothing can make you “get” the bard like the stage. That’s appropriate, I suppose, since he never wrote intending to be read, but to be seen on stage. My students connected with it instantly, and it held them like no amount of in-class work with Shakespeare could have done.
So let me give you a few bits about this production that worked well for me:
The first thing I noticed was the tripling of roles. It’s pretty common for Midsummer to include a significant amount of doubling, where many actors play one fairy and one non-fairy. This production, however, did the whole show with seven actors, so it was a sight to be seen. Here are the roles, if you can follow them:
Hippolyta-Titania-Peter Quince
Demetrius-Nick Bottom
Helena-Snout-Mustardseed (In a way she also covered Starveling)
This didn’t make for a lot of off-stage time for the cast, but it made for some rollicking good fun for the audience. One of my students even asked them after the show how hard it was to learn all those parts. Their response? “It’s like school—it just takes work.”
Since Peter Quince was also playing a pair of queens, his character was made into a woman so that she could wear for her costume an overcoat over the dress of the moment. The most playful adaptation this choice brought out was the fawning affection that the new character (let’s call her Petronella Quince) lavished over Bottom. In this production Quince gives Bottom the lead role because she admires him so openly. That affection makes a whole new dimension of comedy when the same actress, as Titania, fawns again over Bottom in a lower state of ridiculousness.
Another unusual choice—one I had never seen before, and which will mark this production for me forever—they made Snug blind. When he asks for his script to read and practice, the other players give him a stupid look—not only is his part just roaring, but he couldn’t read it anyway. And the blind lion creates magnificent stage business for the rehearsal scene and the play-within-the-play, especially when he knocks the wall down while facing the wrong audience. I’ll probably always remember this production as the “Blind Lion” Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Once again, Bravo to the Utah Shakespeare Festival. It is not exaggeration when I regularly brag of this festival as the best Shakespeare on our side of the Atlantic.

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