Monday, 2 June 2014

A Midsummer's Night Dream: Great Fodder for Debate

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Stratford Festival
Festival Theatre
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 46 minutes (with one 15 minute interval)
May 31-October 11
Toll-free: 1.800.567.1600
Review by Geoff Dale

To be uncharacteristically personal about the latest version of Midsummer Night’s Dream – allow us to be blunt from the onset. This is a must-see production but for a wildly different reason other than just critical praise or even pure enjoyment.
This outrageously daring adaptation, directed with unashamed enthusiasm and genuine daring by Chris Abraham, has it all – good, bad and even ugly – particularly if you looking for a knock-down, drag ‘em out debate when the nearly three hour production has screamed its way to the glorious end.
At the close, as your humble scribe was briskly walking and trotting to retrieve the family car from the Festival lot, he overheard one exuberant couple – in complete agreement with one another – quite loudly and vigorously slamming the production for its basic set-up and most notably for its uniformly bad acting. The last comment, I might interject, is just plain wrong.
These excitable comments were overheard just moments after one learned gent inside the theatre noted that only an ensemble cast this talented could get away with treating a production like this in such a matter. So now, nearly 400 hundred years after the Bard’s death in 1616, the debate begins once again in earnest.
Just what about this particular production has some so up in arms, raging about its badness, while other sing the praises of a talented director and a gifted acting company successfully maneuvering the challenges of such a dicey risk-taking theatrical proposition. Isn’t that whatMidsummer Night’s Dream is all about? In fact, it and As You Like It, are always ripe for bold outings like this one.
Firstly, here are some of the chief and supposedly controversial ingredients. A play within the play, performed as a splashy (in later scenes, quite literally) wedding gift for a same-sex racially integrated couple. Reverse gender casting – Titania, played by the adventurous, Evan Buliung, Lysander in the hands of Tara Rosling and Puck, a wondrously mischievous Chick Reid, co-incidentally just the right size (Mickey Rooney would have been proud).
So with all of that firmly in place, one need not be surprised at the barrage of playful lesbian/ gay jokes, slapstick scenarios and risk-taking insinuations/double-entendres that will be hurled at the audience. Arguably, the timid and logically the more outspoken on the right-of centre-spectrum may take offence.
Well, take it with a grain of salt, lighten up and remember what the impishly sly Puck says:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
There is no question about the quantity of outright silliness in Abraham’s treatment but most of it works, at least superficially and certainly when it comes to generating guffaws from the audience. Yes, there were clearly far too many of those earlier alluded to water-splashing scenes, more frat house than purely Shakespearean but, with a little more restraint, even they were easily manageable.
Stephen Ouimette is effective as Bottom making the not-too-subtle ass of himself but starting off the proceedings as a backyard barbecue king was a vision better left to television hardware store advertisements. Perhaps worth a chuckle but not much more.
Jonathon Goad was an impressive Oberon, King of the Fairies, even managing to squeeze out a couple of ad-libs(?) – ‘How are those abs doing’ and Scott Wentworth as Theseus – well, does anyone out there seriously remember him giving a bad performance. Really?
The only scene that falls flat and is truly embarrassingly unfunny and terminally long is the wedding cake ceremony that quickly degenerates into a food fight that would make Jerry Springer wince with pain and have either Moe, Curly, Larry or Shemp of the terribly underappreciated Three Stooges rushing onstage with notes outlining how to do it right – with precise timing, proper facial appreciations and, of course, a suitably appalled regal grand dame.
Still there are enough other delights like onstage musician Thomas Ryder Payne and a suitably dreamy set to keep the production going at a nice pace. Besides, there are all those ample opportunities for plenty of heated and likely unresolved after-production discussions.
But remember it’s all a dream and when were they ever supposed to be guided by stringent rules and regulations. A night to remember for oh so many reasons.
3 1/2 stars out of 5
This review also appeared online at Donald's Dish.

Photo: Stephen Ouimette in the role of Bottom.
Photography by Don Dixon with digital art from Krista Dodson.

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