Updated: Jun 1
Once upon a time, on a warm, Midsummer’s night, four young lovers find themselves wrapped in the dream-like arms of an enchanted forest where sprites lurk and fairies rule, where separating your imagination from reality and your dreams from memory become almost impossible.
This is the otherworld charm of fairyland, where the pomp and politics of its nobles, the romantic melee of its lovers and the mischievousness of its pixies, imps and hobgoblins balance all the fervor and spirit that these worlds engender.
Consequently, Director Martie Ramm’s staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Golden West College Theatre is a fluid one, in which the lines of sexual attraction and control melt and morph again and again. There’s really a lot going on in this play.
But don’t worry. This rigid scheme of existence — including its sexual power structure — will soon be turned upside down and inside out. And we can all dream a little dream together, forgetting and reconstituting who and what we are.
From the world of Athens, ruled by the rational Theseus (Matthew Villescas), the play transports us to the fairy-infested woods, dominated by the magical Oberon (Jonathan West) and Titania (Clover King). The theme always remains the same: love in all of its variations. In the opening conversation between Puck (Ian Pedersen) and Titania's fairy, they discuss the fight between the rulers of the fairy world, providing another example of a love that is not going smoothly.
Titania has foresworn the "bed and company" of Oberon, and their conversation focuses on the infidelities committed by each. Not only was Oberon once in love with the "bouncing Amazon," Hippolyta, but Titania was supposedly enamored of Theseus. And without their guiding love, the entire land has been ravaged by floods, rotting crops, and numerous rheumatic diseases. Apparently, the fairies' emotional state of well-being has a great deal of influence on the moon, which controls things like heavy rains, decomposing produce and Crohn's disease.
Now, it should not be strange to encounter any of Shakespeare’s plays at any time of the year, so firmly ensconced are they in the canon. And yet there’s always something a little startling in just about every production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” whether professional or not. It is, surprisingly, Shakespeare’s most beloved and most frequently produced play. And the title, naturally, has something to do with the play’s usually being relegated to the sticky months (lately, here, more wet than sticky).
But “Dream” is one of the most surefire comedies ever written, and it features not one, not two, not three, but four journeys (of sorts) ending in lovers’ meeting. Shakespeare comedies often conclude with nuptials in the offing, but this play offers a stage full of contented lovers, gathering to watch a hilariously amateurish enactment of a love story — the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe — that ends rather more unhappily.
Actually, that scene is among the most reliably hilarious in any Shakespeare play, and so is the scene in which a puppyish Lysander (Tristan Lund) and Demetrius (Maximus Dorsey), both passionately declaring their love for a bewildered Helena (Lizzy Legere), are joined by a dumbfounded Hermia (Ariana Rubio), calling up a four-way game of verbal fisticuffs. These passages rarely fail to engender merriment, which is another reason why “Dream” has always been so popular. Plus, we have fairies flitting around the stage, the wonderfully dopey Bottom (Salvatore Messina), perhaps the greatest of Shakespeare’s comic doofuses, and a fairly breezy running time. What more could you want?
But what strikes the average theater-goer the most is not the dizzy joyousness of its comedy, or the sunlit ending, but instead the darkness from which all this benevolence emerges. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” may have earned its high berth on the Shakespeare hit parade because of its bundle of high-spirited hijinks, but again, its view of love — the primary theme of the play — is decidedly deep and divided.
Consider another of the often-breezed-by opening moments, in which Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his beloved Hippolyta, are preparing for their nuptial festivities. Rather bluntly, in what is just his second speech, Theseus recalls, “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, and won thy love doing thee injuries.”
Not exactly what you’d expect a fellow to bring up during the wedding planning, right? Of course, his next lines are a gallant vow to wed her in “another key,” but the strange note of violence between men and women that has been so quickly struck will recur again and again throughout the play. Love, it appears, can get you in deep, potentially fatal trouble. As in much of Shakespeare, the human heart is depicted as arbitrary, fickle, unreasonable and prey to outside influences. And that’s true even in the realm of the fairies, where love is inconstant and inspires brutality when it is thwarted.
So getting back to the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, who was already in mid-quarrel when we first meet them. Why the constant squabbling? Well, the primary beef between them is Oberon’s rather arbitrary demand that Titania hand over one of her young attendants. The boy means much to her — in a moving, lyrical speech she describes how his mother who was a great friend, died in childbirth — but Oberon’s insistence on being given the “changeling boy” seems motivated only by a desire to assert his power.
And of course, the method by which Oberon punishes Titania for her refusal to grant his whim — by bewitching her into making love to an ass — is peculiarly perverse and humiliating (albeit, of course, very funny). And what is the transformation of Bottom into an ass but a satire of self-love gone grandiose? Braying disagreeably, Salvatore Messina munches the scenery and spits out the splinters marvelously.
Another uncomfortable note of humiliation: Demetrius and Helena infringe upon Oberon's dominion. Helena is completely overwhelmed by love, and has relinquished all self-respect in her pursuit of Demetrius. As she says, the more he beats her, the more she will love him. Groveling before him, she is willing to be used as he uses his dog. Their interaction has a violent edge, as Demetrius vows he will leave her to the mercy of wild beasts or even potentially rape her if she does not leave him alone.
The gender switch in Helena and Demetrius' conversation also adds an interesting component as Helena invokes male prerogative in her pursuit of Demetrius. She will be Apollo to his Daphne, the griffin to his dove, the tiger to his doe, suggesting male creatures violating females. She argues that women aren't allowed to fight for love in the same way men do, so her pursuit of Demetrius makes him hate her, because it displays an unfeminine aggressiveness.
Of course, as we learned in the opening scene, Hippolyta (Lydia McDonald) was once a fighter too, the respected leader of the Amazons, a band of warrior women. Like Hippolyta, Helena usurped a traditionally male role of dominance and power. And like Hippolyta, she needs to be subdued. Although she will probably never be the fighter Hippolyta once was, Helena's attempt to control her own destiny in love is perhaps why she is rewarded for her faithfulness. Ultimately, Oberon supports her cause by vowing to use the love juice on Demetrius, leaving him fonder of her than she is of him and returning her to a more submissive position.
Another character in the play’s fantastical fairy realm deserving of special mention is Ian Pedersen’s portrayal of the spritely Puck who tricks the group and has them switch partners. Joining him is the distraught Helena, a reserved Theseus, a slinky Oberon and, of course, the ham actor Bottom. This Oberon also makes himself seductive just by speaking, and finds ways to lounge around bare-chested as much as the play will allow.
Director Ramm makes hay of all this Shakespearean foolishness quite effectually. Unusually well cast, her production last evening was full of sharply etched élan, contrasted by very unsubtle comic performances. As Helena — who loves Demetrius, who has eyes only for Hermia — Lizzy Legere paints her lines, often word by word, using a palette of electric colors and eccentric phrasings. Like the other lovers, she aligns her character moment by moment, demonstrating nimble timing — a rare ability even among the best of actors
This is all the more remarkable when you consider that this wonderful cast of thespians have the ability to divide and multiply like a troupe of stage-struck amoebas. In their hands, Shakespeare’s tale of love lost and found in an enchanted forest becomes a gleeful paean to the joys of acting, with enough alteration of egos and antics onstage to keep any child in a perpetual state of contented giggles.
WITH: Ariana Rubio, Tristan Lund, Lizzy Legere, Maximus Dorsey, Matthew Villescas, Salvatore Messina, Jonathan West, Clover King, Ian Pedersen, Amanda Macdonald, Payton Moore, Britney Nguyen, Jordan Marshall, Alex Huynh, Tyler Fewell, Thai Nguyen, Chad Phillips, Andrew Eckstone, Sryhaan Albuquerque, Lydia McDonald
The Golden West College Theater Arts Department, Huntington Beach, presents — SHAKESPEARE’S A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM; Directed by Martie Ramm. Performance dates are April 28 through May 7 in the Golden West College Mainstage Theater. For additional information or to purchase tickets, visit the GWC Theater Arts Department website at www.gwctheater.com.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Greg Parks