A Midsummer Night’s Dream @ SOTA Studio Theatre, Singapore, 2015
Reviewed by Kevin Riordan
For Young & W!ld’s most recent show, the program directors let the ensemble do what ensembles do, that is, to debate and select their final project themselves. Young & W!ld is the apprentice division of one of Singapore’s major companies, W!ld Rice, and they’ve developed a reputation for producing original, collaborative work. Their previous show Geylang, for example, was a devised piece about the neighborhood and red-light district bearing that name. Young & W!ld’s twelve cohort members (typically aspiring artists who’ve finished a diploma or university) train together for eighteen months as theater makers in a broad sense. Their showcase productions rarely take on classical material and instead highlight their contemporary training methods, with nods to the likes of Augusto Boal and Anne Bogart. With their mission in mind, the ensemble surprised everyone—their directors, their audiences, and perhaps even themselves—when they decided to take on not only a canonical script but Shakespeare. While their A Midsummer Night’s Dream did feel like an aesthetic departure, some of its rougher edges became its charm, highlighting the elements in the Shakespeare that seem tailored for collaborative and even devised work.
Taking on Midsummer inevitably included challenges for this training company, for example the learning (or re-learning) of verse delivery. But the script also easily harmonized with this group’s own way of making. When initially reading over the Rude Mechanicals’ scenes in particular, the ensemble must have heard a welcoming echo, as they sounded the lines of another group of actors deciding collectively (more or less) on how to put on a show. The whole of Young & W!ld’s Midsummer was infused with the Mechanicals’ playful attitude, and the production’s broader style seemed to spring from, refer back to, or wink at those scenes. When, for example, the woman playing Peter Quince appeared as Peaseblossom, my first thought was that Peter Quince too had found his way into the forest.
Before settling into Midsummer’s world, the show opened elsewhere, with projected video footage from the company’s last show Geylang. This curious prelude introduced the company of actors—but in the wrong show. It was if the actors had shown up, as in an anxiety dream, with the wrong costumes and scripts. The speakers blared “Love Potion #9,” and the company briefly masqueraded on screen in more garish clothes and make-up, foreshadowing the tonality of the forest before settling into the button-upped stiffness of the first Athens scenes. Played downstage against the seats, the first scene’s parental scolding and youthful scheming were set a bit too close to the audience, revealing the fault lines of some early nerves and hurried verse. When the Mechanicals entered for Scene 2 things loosened up, before the show retreated with a relieved sigh into the more physically dynamic work of the forest.
For the wood near Athens, the company dropped deeper into the black box, finding its nooks and crannies. This black box perimeter is lined with a catwalk, from which they hung opaque strips to produce a forest effect. This false outer wall allowed performers to hide behind what might be a tree trunk or to run past several, effectively strobing the audience’s view. Fairies and lovers alike used this outer wall for anticipating entrances, for eavesdropping, and for running semi-simultaneous scenes. With this inventive and overlapping staging the forest scenes moved rapidly and seamlessly together.
In this production Oberon and Titania largely were gracious hosts for the visiting Athenians; their own drama and the magical workings of Puck were breezed by. The pared-down dialogue—the show ran less than an hour-and-a-half—conveyed the essentials, but the company’s physical work carried the story. The staging showcased what Young & W!ld is better known for, with the ensemble shaping distinctive takes on familiar scenes. When Lysander and Demetrius’s squabbles reached a crescendo, for example, the actors squared up to fist fight. But first they paused, menacingly and methodically rolling up their (matching) pajama pants, one leg at a time; the harder edge of their verbal antinomy was undercut with a laugh. Similarly, when the ass’s head was finally removed from Bottom, he stretched the moment before his next line. He paused, fidgeted, looked at the audience, and eventually reached down his shirt to pull out an enormous mass of rogue chest hair before his “man is but an ass” speech. It was in these kinds of pauses, these embellished breaks, that Young & W!ld stamped their style on the production. Here they showed how “open-source” Shakespeare’s script can be, how it lends itself to clowning, ornament, and invention. The Shakespeare text’s very lack of stage directions became its own kind of composite direction, prompting performers to build the world around them and write themselves into the work.
Flipping through the program, I could see traces of the inventive and irreverent building of this world, with the performers taking on any number of roles in the process. The parts in Midsummer routinely are double-cast, but Young & W!ld extended this principle throughout the production. The actor who played Bottom (Perry Felix Shen) was also the Props Master, and the two actors playing Titania/Hippolyta (Loh An Lin) and Quince/Peaseblossom (Faith Sim) doubled (again) as the Costume Designers. Still, regardless of the many roles the ensemble played, they all seemed to return home in the Mechanicals scenes, with the show’s other notes resolving there, as in the buoyant pop songs that opened and closed this lighthearted piece.
Most of the action was played across the wide space, almost on parallel tracks: downstage for Athens and upstage for the forest. For the Mechanicals’ performance in Act V, however, the company satisfyingly broke these tracks and this convention, coming straight at the audience for the presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe. The play-within-the-play had the usual slapstick trappings, but with surprises to keep it fresh: The lion was cloaked unwittingly in a tiger-stripe blanket; Flute’s prosthetic breasts were clumsily affixed and required constant, awkward attention; and the wall ended up rapping her lines, complete with a mic drop. The company’s creative, irreverent, but ultimately affectionate treatment of these characters paid off even more than usual, seeming to tie together the work and to steal the show. It reminded the audience—more experientially and emphatically than did the Puck epilogue to follow—of the conceit of the whole thing: After eighteen months of intensive training, this ensemble was still inventing, riffing on Shakespeare’s scenarios, still making us and one another laugh with bits that might be emerging for the first time.