What Fools These Mortals Be

The first time I saw Midsummer Night’s Dream I was in high school. An acting troupe performed in the Redwood Theater, an outdoor amphitheater in Armstrong Woods. It was a summer night in the early 1970s.

My friend and I got there at dusk and joined the steady trickle of people walking to the theater, some carrying blankets, some lugging coolers. There were backless benches in the theater, made by splitting long logs in half, but under the cathedral reaches of the ancient trees it got cold quickly after dark. Now and then we caught a whiff of tobacco—not often—and more frequently we’d walk through a veil of more pungent herbal smoke. The actors stood around in groups, leaning against the broad tree trunks, passing green glass jugs of wine. Some of them inhabited those herbal smoke clouds.

The productions were minimalist; by that I mean no sets at all. I think, when they had done Romeo and Juliet the week before, there may have been a banner that hung below Juliet’s balcony (the trail up the hill from the stage). For MND there was nothing except trees.

This wasn’t really the catalyst of my Shakespeare infatuation. I remember three years earlier seeing Fellini’s Romeo and Juliet, captivated by the language, heart-broken by the story (I was thirteen and I mistakenly thought it was about love). This production of MND, though, had something liberating and subversive, something magical.

It might have been the faintly sugary smell of the immense redwood trees, or the musical chirping of the crickets as night stole into the clearing. It may have been the cup of stars above our heads. It may have been Puck, whose costume consisted of desert boots, a loincloth and lots of body paint, drawn to suggest the branches of trees and winding vines.

The performance wasn’t perfect, but it was lively. Demetrius was drunk, or high, or both, so much so that when Helena pushed him away, mistaking his post-enchantment love-talk for mockery, he fell off the stage. He scrambled up, never breaking character, but I don’t think the fall was choreographed. It was too ungainly.

I know ass-headed Bottom the Weaver was in the production but I remember nothing of the Theseus-Hippolyta marriage that bookends the mad change-partners scramble through the woods. I suspect that Puck, amoral, magical, child-like and powerful, seduced me and that’s why I don’t remember. That’s my story, anyway.

But enough about me.There seems to be a need among theater companies to make MND as anarchic as possible, and the Sonoma Rep’s Shakespeare in the Park production honors that convention. This is awkward because the play’s wildness is effectively hemmed in by patriarchy and tradition. Shakespeare reassures his aristocratic audience that passion, which might lead you to do crazy things in the woods in the middle of the night, can be safely reined in by a well-arranged marriage and the approval of royalty. Still, director David Lear gives it the old college try, leaning heavily on staging, costumes and props to make the production as weird as possible.

Ives Park is no Armstrong Woods but the two-level set, parts covered with palm fronds, is delightfully strange. Lear adds live music to the production and the musicians have their own little shelter offstage. After starting off self-consciously strange and overly arty, with fairies chanting, dirge-like, “Deeaath. . . Eeexiiile,” Lear hits his stride when the two couples wander into the woods, and we meet Oberon and Titania.

Wendell H Wilson makes an adequate Theseus and an extraordinary Oberon. His interactions with Michal Victoria as Puck rivet the viewer’s attention. Puck can be played by either a male or a female, and this female Puck’s relationship with her king is flirtatious, highly physical, and sexual without being over-the-top, an interesting tightrope. Oberon is alternately a strict, powerful king and an indulgent, amused older man.

The “rude mechanicals” who come into the forest to practice their play for the royal wedding are strange and fun. All dressed in red and black, in whiteface, they look like a cross between stoned mimes and a Kiss tribute band. As they anxiously await the return of their missing comrade Bottom the Weaver, they do hits from a skull-shaped bong.

Hermia and Helena also use black and red, looking slightly Goth. This version of the play flirts with the eroticism between the two women characters. Hermia and Lysander love each other, but Hermia is betrothed to Demetrius. Helena, Hermia’s best friend, loves Demetrius. Hermia and Lysander plot to elope to a place beyond the Athenian border. When Helena appears, bemoaning Demetrius’s indifference to her, Hermia tells her of the scheme, mainly to reassure her. Helena promptly tells Demetrius of their plan, to show him that Hermia is unworthy of him. That’s her rationalization, anyway. In reality, this action is against Helena’s own self-interest. Wouldn’t it be better to let Hermia elope, leaving Demetrius free, so she can get him on the rebound? Helena’s actions make more sense if it is Hermia she is jealous of, not Demetrius. Lear doesn’t shy away from this, letting the two actresses get very close physically. In this light, their comments about being “friends from school days” take on a more suggestive meaning.

Meanwhile, Oberon, in the middle of a marital squabble with his wife Titania, has dosed her with a potion that will make her fall in love with the first thing she sees. With a grand blind spot of true royalty, Oberon is offended by Demetrius’s rude treatment of Helena, even though he has just drugged his own wife and plans to humiliate her by having her fall in love with a wild beast of the woods. He sends Puck to dose the man “in Athenian garb” with the potion, so that when he wakes he will fall in love with the maiden he’s been mistreating. Neither Oberon nor Puck knows that there are two Athenian men in the woods that night. Both Lysander and Demetrius get dosed. Each one sees Helena. It’s “game on.”

Helena is an easy character to pity but hard to like, even more so now that we are bombarded with needy women as epitomized on TV shows like “Flavor of Love.” Gwen Kingston does a fine job, but it isn’t until Helena stands up to both Lysander and Demetrius, saying she will walk out of the woods alone even if she leaves her heart behind, that we begin to feel some respect and some sympathy for her.

In the end, of course, powerful and unpredictable Oberon puts everything right. Hermia ends up with Lysander and Helena gets the still-enchanted Demetrius. All that’s left is the tedious royal wedding, made more tedious by the fact that from where I was sitting it was impossible to hear at least half the dialog between the royal couple, because Lear insisted on seating them in the audience, lower than the stage.

That said, I take away from this the powerful physical performance of Wilson, the strangeness of the stoner-boy players and the whimsical use of hip-hop in a song by Puck. The high-quality staging and costuming paid off, as did the live music.

Was it a night of mystery and magic in an enchanted forest? No, but it was a lovely walk in the park.

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