Review by Rob Ormsby
Celebration, festivity and inclusiveness are the dominant tones in the Chris Abraham-directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford Ontario’s Festival Theatre. He signals this festive spirit of community before the show begins by sending many cast members in semi-casual summer dress out to mingle and chat on the theatre’s thrust stage, some of them joking with and taking pictures of the audience. Accompanied by easy-listening jazz tunes, they move about a set that does not change when the action shifts from Athens to the woods. Designer Julie Fox has covered the platform in artificial turf, clumps of scrub, and trees that rise up, partially covering the second level of the stage structure. What look like enclosed candles are placed amongst the greenery and fairy lights are strung about, as are several long strands of larger bare bulbs hanging between the theatre’s upper balcony seating and the trees onstage. Upstage left stands a barbecue, while musical instruments fill the niche upstage right.
The mingling actors prove to be guests at a garden party, where they will watch a play and play their parts in it. By framing the action with an extra layer of spectatorship in a comedy already full of character-performers who become spectators, Abraham emphasizes his concern with Dream’s and its source material’s representation of ceaseless metamorphosis in the unfolding of true love’s unsmooth course. But there is a specific contemporary change that he wants to celebrate. Implicitly reviving the tradition that Shakespeare wrote the play to accompany aristocratic nuptials, the director relates in his program note that this production is meant to depict same-sex desire—and marriage—as “the new normal.” To authorize, Theseus-like, the normality of once-wayward desire, he turns the play into a command performance for the marriage between the “Wedding Couple,” two unnamed men played by Josue Labourcane and Thomas Olajide who watch the action from seats placed at the bottom of the centre-stage stairs.
Abraham mirrors this normalization in the relationship between Bethany Jillard’s Hermia and Tara Rosling’s Lysander. In another attempt at inclusiveness, he makes Michael Spencer-Davis’ Egeus deaf and gives him an “Attendant” (Derek Moran) who speaks aloud the words of paternal displeasure that Spencer-Davis angrily signs. Unsatisfied that his message is getting through, Egeus compels Hermia to interpret his threats, subjugating his daughter by forcing her to “speak” his language, and what seems like merely a clever directorial choice gains power when Jillard persuasively conveys the pain it causes Hermia. Three acts later, Abraham turns subjugation on its head: after Theseus puts the lovers’ worlds to rights, Spencer-Davis gives Jillard an angry “I’m watching you” gesture that Moran slyly transforms with a surreptitious thumbs-up.
Such playfulness characterizes the relationships among the young lovers. Mike Shara plays up Demetrius’ preposterous masculinity, at one point spinning around on a small revolve and striking ridiculous poses as fog curls about his feet. By contrast, Abraham conceals Lysander and Hermia in a tent and we must imagine the interior action by piecing together the dialogue and the contorting tent fabric. The dispute among the four lovers, once Rosling and Shara focus their attention on Liisa Repo-Martell’s Helena, escalates from slapping to a water fight (there is a small rectangular trough in the downstage reeds) to a food fight as the young Athenians energetically (and to the delight of the audience) destroy the wedding cake that has been set on a table during intermission.
The wrecked wedding cake suggests a less-than-gleeful undercurrent in some of the production’s other relationships, though I am not certain that Abraham intended this message. Maev Beaty’s Hippolyta begins the play as a slightly aloof, straight-spined and spear-wielding Amazon who pointedly refuses to follow Scott Wentworth’s handsome and utterly charming cream-suited Theseus after he lays down Athenian law. By the end, however, the festivity has gotten to her and, having traded her spear for a champagne flute, she becomes tipsy, speaks too loudly and finds herself in need of Theseus’s guiding hand, which Wentworth obligingly proffers.
The playfulness between Titania and Oberon, too, was tinged with pessimistic elements. The fairy king and queen are played by Evan Buliung and Jonathan Goad, two young Straford veterans who alternate the roles in successive performances. I saw Buliung play Oberon, and he is a harsh, overbearing husband, though he has fun toying magically with Shara’s Demetrius (a game that turned into a scene of giggly corpsing among the cast, though it was hard to tell at which level of reality the corpsing occurred). Goad’s Titania will be especially interesting for those familiar with the actor’s decade and more of performing his very masculine charisma at Stratford. Wearing a long, flowing strapless gown that shows off his powerful shoulders and arms, Goad reframes this masculinity. At times, he meets Buliung’s Oberon with full-throated, deep-voiced anger; at others he squeals in a parody of feminine delight (when in love with Bottom) or horror (when out of love with Bottom). While Goad is obviously revealing the constructed nature of gender, this Titania does finally submit to Oberon and the two actors share a jumping chest bump during the curtain call. Does this mean that their same-sex conflict is resolved in feminine obedience and masculine horseplay? I did not see the chest bump as dismissively ironic of their earlier performance, but the swirling post-show action does not make subtle signs easy to grasp.
There is not much equivocation in the Mechanicals’ scenes, which exude sunny good nature and are dominated by Stephen Oumiette, who joyfully out-Bottoms Bottom when it comes to calculated naïveté and ham acting. Instead of a loom, Ouimette’s Bottom works the grill in Athens but trades his “Daddy-o of the Patio” barbecue apron for a preposterous hair vest that he wears under an open shirt in the woods. He adopts other guises of clichéd manliness in “Pyramus and Thisbe,” transforming himself into a bumbling light-sabre-wielding Jedi whose insistence on dying hard half-submerged in the water trough (his Pyramus suffers from instant and inexorable rigor mortis of the raised arm) calls to mind the self-indulgent deaths of, say, cinematic Hamlets. Ouimette’s final costume is a purple bath robe in which he leads the workmen’s burgomask by karaoking, aptly, to New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.” The scene tops off all the other pop songs that have been worked into the production but, more importantly, leave little doubt as to why Peter Quince et al wept so feelingly when they believed their true leader irrevocably lost to them in translation.
Wentworth’s Theseus throws a wet blanket over the musical celebration with the joking explanation “I’ve got neighbors.” Yet Abraham clearly strives for an aura of communitas, as the entire cast hopefully witnesses the fairy blessing and, subsequently, Puck’s final speech, delivered from above by Chick Reid. Whatever loose ends or conflicts may remain between spouses, the director appears to want to accommodate them on behalf of what the Wedding Couple represent along the way to normalizing the new normal.