The exuberant comedy, the transcendent language and sweet resolution of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" remains immutable, no matter in what period it is set or however costumed.
In the robustly energetic production that opened Sunday night on the Elizabethan Stage of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, director Christopher Liam Moore takes us from an American parochial school in 1964 to an Elizabethan fairyland in a timeless enchanted forest. Everything — the broad physical pratfalls, the breathtaking visual projections, and the lushly elaborate Elizabethan outfits — combine to make this season's version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" a unique experience.
Moore has remade Athens into "Our Lady of Athens School" and the Athenians into students and faculty. Theseus (Richard Howard) is a priest and the headmaster and Hippolyta (Judith-Marie Bergan) is a teaching nun. They have reluctantly fallen in love and both are abandoning their vocation to marry.
Moore has tweaked the classic opening speeches of the play just a bit to convey, in a radical new context, how difficult and shocking Theseus and Hippolyta's pairing off will be. It is after Vatican II, the heretofore structured and paternalistic world of the Catholic Church is rapidly changing. There is a lovely gravitas to Moore's depiction of all of this, and Shakespeare's language resonates in a new and contemporary context.
Once the play moves into the forest, though, Moore abruptly switches gears and everything becomes broadly and hilariously physical. Language becomes secondary to frenetic choreography.
In the woodsy fairy world, its king, Oberon (Ted Deasy) and his queen, Titania (Terri McMahon), are an old married couple and the day-to-day stress of life together has taken a toll. Their marital bickering has created chaos and dysfunction around them and Oberon's fairy servant Puck (Gina Daniels), like a mischievous child, is taking full advantage of the couple's discord.
The spellbound, mismatched teenaged mortal lovers — Hermia (Tanya Thai McBride), Lysander (Joe Wegner), Demetrius (Wayne T. Carr) and Helena (Christiana Clark) — dash about on the lushly festooned forest of a set, flinging modern backpacks, sleeping bags and even saddle shoes. Every encounter escalates into pure slapstick.
And, while in most productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the "mechanicals" — the trades people — earnestly rehearsing and performing a skit for Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding, are supposed to flail around and appear ridiculous, the device of having them school employees takes the silliness in new directions. Bottom (Brent Hinkley) is the posturing gym teacher; P.T. Quince (Catherine Coulson) is a prissy drama teacher; Snout (K.T. Vogt) is the cafeteria lady; Flute (Jon Beavers), the science teacher; Snug (Michael J. Hume), the janitor; and Starveling (Isabell Monk O'Connor), the school secretary.
The emphasis on pure physical action here culminates when Hinkley as Bottom, playing the tragically lovelorn Pyramus in the skit, takes fully five minutes of improvised and outrageous pantomime to finally die.
As always, OSF's technical work is breathtaking. Michael Ganio's remaking of the Elizabethan Stage's set piece façade, Alexander V. Nichols' imaginative video projections, and Sarah Pickett's haunting score do lend some magic to the mix, as does Linda Cho and Joshua Pearson's amusing costume mix of school uniforms and Elizabethan fairy court dress.
It's hard to take "A Midsummer Night's Dream," rethink it and come up with a new take on this old, familiar favorite. Moore has mixed some thoughtful stuff here with all the playing for laughs. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is supposed to be wildly and physically funny. But it shouldn't be so at the expense of Shakespeare's sly wit and gorgeous language.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.