A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Don’t encourage them

publicity photo for A Midsummer Night's Dream

Heidi Damayo, Emily Dallas, Christopher Allen, and Olivia Hutt
Photo by Tim Matheson

Bard on the Beach in general and director Scott Bellis in particular have a bad habit of obscuring Shakespearean texts by slathering on coarse physical comedy. In Bellis’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s a lot of very enthusiastic slathering. Yes, this strategy keeps the audience laughing, but much of the play’s beauty and wit — and almost its entire emotional impact — are lost: once again, Bard on the Beach is misrepresenting Shakespeare’s potential to Vancouver audiences — and that’s a significant disservice.

If you’re not familiar with the play, it’s about four young Athenians — Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander — who head into the forest when Hermia’s father Egeus threatens to have her executed for wanting to marry Lysander, instead of Demetrius, to whom she is betrothed.

The forest is enchanted; Oberon, king of the fairies, orders his minion Puck to administer a magic floral potion and the young lovers start falling in love with the wrong people.

The forest is also where a troupe of “mechanicals” (working people) have decided to rehearse their deliciously titled play, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. For fun, Puck transforms one of the actors, a weaver named Bottom, partway into an ass. And Oberon orders Puck to use the floral potion on Titania, the fairy queen, who falls in love with the half-assed Bottom. Oberon does this out of revenge: he and Titania are feuding over possession of a changeling boy.

Thematically, there’s a lot going on here. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about the oppression of women: when Egeus asserts his ownership of his daughter Hermia’s body, he triggers the entire cavalcade of events. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about the loosening of strictures, and the restorative power of the imagination: in the magical, liminal forest, love finds its true course. And, of course, the theatre itself is a dream, ephemeral and rejuvenating, as Puck acknowledges in the play’s last speech: “If we shadows have offended,/ Think but this and all is mended,/ That you have but slumb’red here/ While these visions did appear.”

But, for any of this to matter, you have to care about the characters, and Bellis makes caring difficult.

He has miscast key roles. Heidi Damayo, who seems to be very young, delivers a two-dimensional performance as Hermia. More damagingly, Sarah Roa is all enthusiasm all the time as Puck. Without pausing to make fresh sense of the text, Roa barges through the role, almost always at maximum speed, top volume, and full-on generic impishness.

Bellis toys with gender and the results are … confusing. When we first meet Lysander in Athens, actress Olivia Hutt is costumed as a man and her bountiful hair is initially tucked under her hat. After some time in the forest, when she returns to Athens to marry Hermia, Lysander is more clearly identified as female: her hair is down and she’s wearing a stylish pantsuit and heels. So was Lysander originally a cross-dressing lesbian? I guess so, but then why doesn’t anybody notice or comment on it? I understand that texts are flexible, but there comes a point at which logic falls apart.

In this production, Bottom is also played by a woman, Carly Street. This Bottom wears trousers, but Street’s long hair is undisguised. For most of the evening, I read Street’s Bottom as a man, so I was confused when Bottom made physical jokes about their breasts during the performance of the mechanicals’ play.

I’m all for fucking with gender: I just want to know the rules — and the point.

Beyond the issue of gender, Street’s performance as Bottom is emblematic of this production’s excesses. There’s no doubt that she’s a gifted comic actor: she’s as inventive as all hell and she’s got great comic timing. But she doesn’t know when to stop and Bellis, apparently, had no interest in stopping her. Indulging an approach that exists nowhere else in this mounting, Street colloquializes her performance, assuming a contemporary valley-dude attitude and using reality-busting asides: “Okay”, “I have no idea what’s going on.” She also indulges in the cheapest of cheap physical humour — stabbing herself in the crotch in the performance of the mechanicals’ play, for instance — and she so completely dominates every scene she’s in that, too often, she wipes the other, more disciplined actors off the stage. In this way, her performance is gluttonous and that gluttony is a good part of what undermines the climactic presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe: by that point in the evening, I was completely tired of her.

Bellis’s emphasis on physical humour undermines another of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s most hilarious sequences, a smackdown in which Helena insults Hermia’s short stature (“You minimus of hindering knotgrass made, You bead, you acorn!”) and Hermia insults Helena’s tallness (“Painted maypole!”). Okay, okay, I know these might not sound like knee-slappers but, delivered with the requisite fury and sense of discovery, they can be. We’re not given the chance to experience that here, though, because Bellis upstages the verbal exchange by having Demetrius and Lysander be so horny for Helena that they’re crawling around on their bellies, virtually humping the floor and trying to grab her.

Speaking of excess, in the forest, Olivia Hutt, who’s playing Lysander and who is persuasively openhearted elsewhere, starts to illustrate every speech by using her arms to create a kind of semaphore. What the hell? What would Bellis consider too much?

Kate Besworth’s Titania is disappointingly brittle and Bellis surrounds her with ballerina-like dancing fairies who really don’t need to be there. The mostly forgettable choreography is by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.

Thankfully, other actors fare better. Billy Marchenski makes a cool, sexy Oberon. Within the broad style that Bellis has set, two of the lovers — Emily Dallas as Helena and Christopher Allen as Demetrius — manage to find consistent emotional connections to the material. And in a focused, understated portrait, Advah Soudack gets full comic value out of the timorous Snug (one of the mechanicals.)

Amir Ofek’s set is spectacular: Athens is an imposing art deco ruin and the transition into the forest is accomplished with the arrival of elegant vegetal cut outs. I loved the little details: Ofek leaves a few panes of glass in the window frames for instance, and those squares turn into shimmering shards of light as the sun sets off Kits Point.

Speaking of light, Gerald King’s lighting is surprisingly lush on this architecturally severe framework, but it’s evocative and there’s one truly spectacular cue: when Titania’s bower, with Titania sleeping inside it, descends from high up, it passes through shafts of light from the setting sun — enhanced, I think, by extra fog. It’s breathtaking.

And Christine Reimer’s costumes are stunners. Oberon’s grey top hat has a rakishly swooping top line and I would happily wear the clothes of any of the lovers in the wedding party — dresses, trousers, and waistcoats in shades of pale aquamarine and vanilla.

So this production spent its design budget well.

Too often, though, this Midsummer Night’s Dream is content to please its audience rather than elevate it.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM By William Shakespeare. Directed by Scott Bellis. A Bard on the Beach production. On Thursday, June 16 on the BMO Mainstage. Running continuously (it’s not in rep) until September 24. Tickets

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Brilliant and accurate! Far, far better than the amateur performance.

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