Stage Door Review

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Friday, July 23, 2021

✭✭

by William Shakespeare, directed by Peter Pasyk

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy, Stratford

July 21-August 1, 2021

Hippolyta: “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard”

With A Midsummer Night’s Dream the Stratford Festival has staged its first live in-person play since 2019. It’s a pity, therefore, that it is a middling production more akin to what one might expect from an average university drama department than from the prime purveyor of Shakespeare in Canada. The show is filled with a mélange of design and directorial ideas with none fully carried out and it is unengagingly acted by the majority of the cast. Even if you have been starved for live Shakespeare after 14 months of Covid restrictions, such a production is really not worth travelling to see.

Since indoor theatre has been permitted in Ontario only since July 16, plays at Stratford this year have been conceived to play outdoors under two large marquees. A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy which has been erected in the parking lot adjacent to the newly built Tom Patterson Theatre. The long, narrow wooden stage, reminiscent of the Tom Patterson stage, separates the 100 members of the audience into two “pods” on either side.

Each pod consists of various physically distanced groupings of from one to four seats. Though the groupings are staggered so that one does not have people directly in front of them, the rows behind are not elevated.

Compared to the set-up for the 2021 New Works Festival by Here For Now Theatre (HFN) at The Bruce Hotel just one kilometre away, the Stratford set-up is uncomfortable. Unlike HFN’s seats, Stratford metal seats are hard. Wise patrons brought a seat cushion. HFN’s seats are also tiered for better viewing. One wonders why the Stratford Festival with its vastly larger budget could not have made its audience more comfortable.

Worse, the performers for Stratford, unlike for HFN, are miked. One assumes that because the marquee has no sides and streets running on three sides of it that the Festival took this measure. On the other hand, if actors can’t project to reach only 100 people, they require further training. The actors in Stratford first tent back in 1953 certainly used no amplification even though the capacity was 1,988.

Director Peter Pasyk has decided to begin the play with Puck (Trish Lindström) in a Cirque du Soleil-like clown outfit and makeup addressing the audience with lines from Puck’s speeches mixed with ad libs. Lindström is quite adept at this but Pasyk does not use her as a stage-manager figure as we first assume he will. The Cirque theme would have been interesting but costume designer Lorenzo Savoini carries it no further than his odd get-up for Titania (Bahareh Yaraghi) that mixes clown hair and tights with a heavily-chained 1980s Madonna-like outfit. This peculiar costuming makes Puck and Titania seem to be from a different story from the other characters.

In far too many poor productions of Dream, the interrelations among the four lovers –  Demetrius, Helena, Hermia and Lysander – devolve into lots of shouting and pointless running about the stage ending up with the once clothed youths stripped down to their underwear. So, with depressing predictability, it is here. The text has been so cut to runs only one hour 37 minutes and the lovers are so uniformly loud that we really don’t care who is supposed to love whom. Because of that none of the humour comes through when Puck’s mistakes cause both men to fall in love with Helena.

Of the four actors, three –  Eva Foote (Hermia and Snug), Jonathan Mason (Demetrius and Peter Quince) and Micah Woods (Lysander and Snout) – are all in their second season at Stratford. Both Foote and Woods require more voice training to produce rounder, more modulated speech on stage. All three do nothing to distinguish the two main characters they play – a fiery young lover versus a doltish workman.

The exception to these three is Amaka Umeh (Helena and Flute), who had been scheduled to play the title role in Hamlet last season before it was cancelled. Umeh radically distinguishes the excitable Helena from the sullen Flute, but as Helena she gesticulates so wildly and speaks so over-emphatically that she goes quite near the top if not over it.

Craig Lauzon, in his first season, and Bahareh Yaraghi, in her third, make a disappointing Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania. Neither distinguishes their two roles. Lauzon has not mastered Shakespearean verse and takes a breath even in the middle of a line, instead of waiting until the line or the thought is concluded. Savoini’s dressing Oberon in a robe and slippers hardly enhances the character’s authority so that this is one Dream where Puck, not Oberon, seems fully in charge of the supernatural realm.

Yaraghi adopts a unvariedly scornful tone as both her characters. It does not help that most of Titania’s lines of love for Bottom have been cut so that we do not see a gentler side to her. When Oberon reveals to Titania that she has been in love with an ass, Pasyk has her applaud Oberon ironically for his trick. This makes us think that Oberon’s trick should only make Titania even angrier with him instead of leading to any kind of reconciliation. Thus, their reconciliation does not feel either logical or sensible.

The two standouts of the production are André Sills as Bottom and Trish Lindström as Puck and Egeus. Lindström does distinguish her characters, making Egeus a fussy, confused old man in contrast to the ever lively, sprightly Puck. Lindström’s Puck is clearly the gleeful spirit of anarchy, seemingly more powerful than Oberon.

Sills is hilarious as Bottom and demonstrates that he can be just as effective in tragic roles like his Coriolanus of 2018 as in comic roles like this. Bottom is a role that easily tempts actors to going over the top. Sills resists this temptation and portrays Bottom’s actions simply as the overabundant enthusiasm that is part of this innocent workman’s personality.

Among the directorial ideas that Pasyks does not fully pursue one is the Cirque theme mentioned above. Another is sexual freedom. On the one hand, Pasyk has Demetrius and Lysander accidentally kiss, a cheap homophobic joke that should have been retired long ago. On the other, when all four lovers are lying asleep on the ground, he has Puck cover them with a huge sheet. Puck says not not only that “Jack shall have Jill” as per Shakespeare’s text but “Jack shall have Jack” and “Jill shall have Jill” upon which we see a major commotion under the sheet as if the four are having an orgy. This notion is confirmed when Helena is revealed with a strap-on dildo and Demetrius is partially cross-dressed.

The question is why Pasyk didn’t begin the play from the start with the idea of gender fluidity. If he wanted his Dream to stand out, why not have the lovers consist of three men and one woman or three women and one man. That would certainly add modern piquancy to switches between loving and loathing the lovers feel for each other. And if the ending is going to be an orgy, what need is their for a traditional pairing up?

Another idea Pasyk does not follow through with is the play’s musical accompaniment. Sometimes scenes are accompanied by actors playing off to the sides of the stage. Sometimes scenes have pre-recorded accompaniment. Pasyk begins the play with Puck revealed on top of a prop box emblazoned with the shape of the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy. We could easily imagine that Pasyk had reconceived the magical forest where the lovers take refuge as the theatre itself. This would be a great idea to pursue. If that were the case, Pasyk could have placed the actor’s instruments on stage so that we could more easily see the actors playing them. Pasyk could then explore the familiar Renaissance trope of world-as-stage-as-dream to reach a potentially revelatory interpretation of this all-too-familiar play.

Unfortunately, Pasyk does none of this. He even directs the Pyramus and Thisbe play so poorly that only Bottom’s death is funny. He has Quince deliver his prologue through a loud hailer to Theseus and Hippolyta only six feet away with the result that we can’t understand a word of what he says much less that Quince ignores his own punctuation. Quince’s accidentally setting off an alarm on the hailer becomes the joke, not the speech. Similarly, the humour of Moonshine’s speech is not his frustration at the nobles’ jokes but the sudden appearance of his stuffed toy dog. Finally, it is bizarre that after Bottom’s extravagant death, Pasyk has Umeh playing Flute deliver Thisbe’s speech complete with “This cherry nose, / These yellow cowslip cheeks ...” as if it were deadly serious.

Thus this first Shakespeare at Stratford after so long a period of waiting turns out to be a real dog’s breakfast of a production with only half of the eight players giving sufficient performances of a not always judiciously abbreviated text. If you really want to see Shakespeare at Stratford, wait until next year when one hopes the Festival may have pulled itself together and be ready to face the public again.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Amaka Umeh as Flute, Micah Woods as Snout, Bahareh Yaraghi as Hippolyta, Craig Lauzon as Oberon, Eva Foote as Snug, Jonathan Mason as Peter Quince and André Sills as Bottom; Trish Lindström as Puck; Amaka Umeh as Flute, Micah Woods as Snout, Jonathan Mason as Peter Quince and Eva Foote as Snug; André Sills as Bottom. © 2021 David Hou.

For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.