High Park’s Midsummer fails to woo with its swords
Diana Jones, York University
Director Tanja Jacobs’ choice to set High Park’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a carnivalesque atmosphere, inspired by the work of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, is appropriate for several reasons. Shakespeare’s comedy is tremendously playful with its sprightly faeries, magical flowers, and campy rude mechanicals. The play is ultimately a celebration of liberty and of gaining the freedom to transcend social boundaries and seek individual satisfaction. Each of these characteristics and themes suit the whimsical and transformative environment of a carnival, where mischief, chaos, and disguise rule the day. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s play draws influence from the ancient Roman midsummer festival of Saturnalia and Elizabethan May Day celebrations, both of which are occasions where societal roles are reversed and where misrule is encouraged.
But perhaps what is most relevant about Jacobs’ carnivalesque setting is its familiarity to 21st century audiences, which, judging by the delighted wide eyes of Dream’s full house on August 15th, makes the 400-year-old play feel recognizable. My eyes were certainly wide, but not because I was excited to see a striped tent centre stage or because I was enamoured of clownish hijinks. Let’s just say that the penis balloons had something to do with it.
Penis balloons aside for now, the production opened by going off-script as Puck (Peter Fernandes) enters to woo the audience with some clowning. As charming as Fernandes’s Puck is, the trick that he was playing with his bowler hat provoked more awkwardness than laughter. Like much of the comic moments in the show, particularly those that are ad-libbed to create the Fellini-style world, the timing is stretched out for such a long time that I worried other audience members could hear my teeth clench. Besides ill timing, the repetitive nature of the production’s humour is tiresome, specifically Puck’s constant digging into his trousers to pull out various objects like a slice of pizza, an ice cream cone, and, you guessed it (no you didn’t), a pickle on a fork.
The motif of trouser rummaging ran throughout this production more than the frantic lovers themselves. I don’t just mean Puck’s literal trouser rummaging – it seems as if every joke started and ended at the crotch (the male crotch, specifically). Of course, Dream is about love and sex. The forest is a site of bawdiness where heated young lovers explore their lusty urges and where donkeys share bowers with queens. My criticism of the production is not that it is sexually explicit – Shakespeare’s text encourages such an interpretation. My problem with Jacobs’ approach has to do with the fact that the crotch-centred jokes came off as excessively cheap tactics to get laughs from the audience. Did the audience laugh? They did. But did the audience laugh because dirty jokes are funny and arouse rambunctiousness or because the production cleverly and humorously tackled the bawdy nature of the play? I argue that the former is the case.
Once Puck exited the stage, the production began to tackle Shakespeare’s text. Duke Theseus (Mac Fyfe) and Hippolyta (Naomi Wright), his captured Amazon queen, enter in the style of a 1950s celebrity couple; a cameraman captures their poses. The composed and focused dialogue between Theseus and Hippolyta is interrupted by Egeus (Gordon Bolan), who arrives to demand that the Duke force his daughter, Hermia (Amaka Umeh), to marry Demetrius (Jakob Ehman). Here lies the play’s driving conflict: Hermia is in love with Lysander (David Patrick Fleming) not Demetrius, yet Egeus refuses the match that Hermia prefers. He beseeches Theseus to give his daughter two choices: marry Demetrius or face execution. Characteristic of a Shakespearean comedy, Dream begins with the potential for tragedy; however, the performers in High Park’s production did not seem bothered by the high stakes during this moment in the play. Umeh’s Hermia simply responded to the plight of her situation by raising her voice. Umeh shouted her way through the dialogue without any thoughtful contemplation of the seriousness of the situation and failed to indicate to the audience that any important acting decisions were being made. Without suggesting that the opening scene of Dream should be played in a singular way, if this moment is not taken seriously, it downplays the boldness of Hermia’s choice to flee the oppressive court and love freely in the forest. If the audience’s first introduction to the court is that it isn’t all that bad, then how can they fully absorb the extent of the freedom that the forest offers? This production seemed more concerned with getting to the funny bits than considering such issues.
Thankfully, the first scene between Oberon (Jason Cadieux) and Titania (Naomi Wright), saved the production from being a mere exercise in silliness. Titania enters with her train of acrobatic faeries who are dressed in vibrant ruffled costumes. More impressive than the decorous spectacle, however, was Wright’s performance, which was grounded and well-intentioned. Unlike in the court scene described above, the seriousness of the conflict between the characters in this scene was not undermined by shouting and rushing. Cadieux and Wright communicate their clash in opinions regarding the fate of the changeling child by conducting a focused debate. Both actors demonstrate an understanding of the text and make their characters’ arguments clear to those who may not be familiar with Shakespeare’s language through their shifts in tone, rhythm, and inflection choices. Perhaps Cadieux’s Oberon did not need his long whip to slap on the stage numerous times during the scene, or perhaps the very fact that he uses the whip lends power to Wright’s Titania, whose words provide enough of a lashing.
The crack of the whip may have also been an indication that the production was about to get progressively naughtier. I want to re-emphasize that Shakespeare’s text is wonderfully naughty and celebratory of sexual desire. When Hermia and Lysander prepare for their first night’s sleep in the forest, Lysander suggests that the couple share the same “turf,” a request that Hermia bashfully denies, leaving Lysander humorously deflated. This moment communicates to the audience that the forest is a space of sexual musings and offers the potential for erotic exploration. Once the floral love juice is incorporated into the action, the sexual urges of the play’s characters, of course, are much more intense and explicit.
Besides the carnal exchange between Bottom (Cadieux) and Titania (Wright), in which the actors retreat to the Queen’s bower appropriately behind the red and white striped curtain, the most sexually charged moment in the production occurs between the four main lovers in act three. It is almost always expected by those familiar with stagings of Dream that this heated confrontation, which gives audiences the Shakespearean equivalent of a “cat fight” between Helena and Hermia and a “bro-down” between Lysander and Demetrius, results in dishevelled hair and a loss of clothing. Director Jacobs followed suit but, again, overreached with the sexualized humor by having Lysander and Demetrius not only strip down to their tighty whities after having already stripped down to their boxers, but, by equipping both men with penis-shaped balloons as weapons. The phallic prop was not necessary; if the audience didn’t know that the men were engaged in a battle for masculine supremacy at this point, then they must have fallen asleep in the forest themselves. The penis balloons popped up again towards the end of the play. Plucking one from the back of her dress where it was conveniently stuck, Hermia holds up the balloon, says, off-script “Oh, they were swords!”, and bursts it as she exits the stage. Again, the performance didn’t seem to trust that the audience could interpret humour independently.
Besides such props, Wall’s costume in the rude mechanicals’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe was unnecessarily sexualized. The “chink” in the Wall was strategically placed in the region of the actor’s crotch, so when Pyramus proclaims “I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all” and bends over to do so, the act simulates oral sex. This joke may have been funny if the audience didn’t just sit through an hour and a half of the same style of humour with a wink and a (hard) nudge accompanying every quip. Time and time again it seemed as if the entire production was pulled out of Puck’s trousers.
The view expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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