Emilia Di Luca
Lysander is a girl. Hermia is a lesbian. Titania is a man. You’ve got to be dreaming, right? Wrong. This is a reality born from director Chris Abraham’s dream, and it’s a dream that awakens its audience to the playfulness or theatre.
At this year’s Stratford Festival, Shakespeare’s ever-popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t look different, at first. Designer Julie Fox dresses the stage, head to toe, in a mystical forest fashion. Like the billowy top of a circus tent, a string of tiny vanilla lights hang over the stage where candles lounge on a bed of grassy turf, next to cushions of green shrubs and under the covers of sleepy trees. Fairies and mortals even splash in a little pond, center stage. But as characters in suits and stilettos slowly spill onto the set and pour into the audience, it’s clear that this is no ordinary Dream.
Abraham twists the classic comedy, which follows the marriages of Athenian rulers, lusty teenagers, and royal fairies. The premise remains stable: thanks to jealous fairies, magical flowers, strict Egeus (Michael Spencer-Davis), oblivious Bottom (Stephen Ouimette), and clumsy Puck (Chick Reid), lovers quarrel and eventually reconcile. Meanwhile, amateur actors rehearse the “lamentable comedy” that is Pyramus and Thisbe for the wedding of Duke Theseus (Scott Wentworth) and his war bride, Hippolyta (Maev Beaty).
The twist? Another marriage. Like the poor players who perform a play for the duke, wedding guests present Dream at the marriage of a gay couple we meet at the start. Abraham appropriately implicates his viewers asking them to compare a contemporary union alongside the others.
The added marriage also deepens what can be aptly named “theatre inception”; after all, the play has “dream” in the title. Abraham’s Dream is a play within a play within a play. The Stratford director invites more metatheatre than Shakespeare intended.
Indeed, this production proves to be a welcome extension of Shakespeare’s talent. Abraham’s first twist—blind casting—works favourably. By that same token, Abraham’s choices shrink some of the genius behind Dream.
Although cross-dressing is absent from Dream, Shakespeare does not shy away from this taboo theatrical technique as he proves in As You Like It or Twelfth Night. Abraham decides Dream could benefit from some gender bending. Rather than a man, Tara Rosling plays Lysander making her and Hermia (Bethany Jillard) lesbians (a new, but fitting motivation for Egeus to reject their marriage). Similarly, Titania (Evan Buliung) appears as a transgender male since Buliung and Jonathan Goad (who plays Oberon) swap roles alternate nights. Buliung plays Titania as a woman, despite his sex. Meanwhile, Puck remains androgynous.
If you think this is all a message on behalf of LGBT, then you’re wrong. Egeus is played as a deaf man who communicates via American Sign Language. Abraham lends the stage to a variety of marginalized figures and bends the script when necessary.
The gender swapping and homosexual relationships don’t necessarily make Dream more current. Arguably, this comedy appeals to contemporary audiences in its original form just fine. Instead, Abraham’s twists demonstrate this story’s universal and timeless truth about love. The story suits relationships of many kinds. If nothing else, the blind casting highlights Buliung’s brilliant transformation into a sweet Titania, and Rosling into a sassy Lysander.
Cross-dressing also teases out more metatheatre. Lighting and music equipment and their operators appear on stage as characters. New laughs are born from the slapstick and ab-lib that metatheatre inspires. In a display of his comical chops, Mike Shara as Demetrius tires from seemingly levitating in the air so he grabs onto Oberon, who realizes that he has no fairies powers—it’s all acting. While new laughs freshen this popular play, some of Shakespeare’s classic lines are lost.
Frequently, Abraham’s choices upstage Shakespeare’s text. Young children play Titania’s fairies and even perform to some Bruno Mars music, among the other song and dance routines the entire fairy kingdom eventually performs. This extension of the fairies’ rhythmical nature is overkill. No need for musical numbers when the fairies speak in a sing-song pattern, literally couplets. No need to tap dance Titania to sleep and salsa lovers around the forest as Puck does. Let Shakespeare’s lines speak for themselves.
Likewise, the young lovers practically shout all their lines during their infamous forest meltdown. There is little build despite the concluding food and water fight. Finally, while Ouimette makes a convincing Bottom, especially while barbequing weenies in his “Daddio of the Patio” apron, the mechanicals as a whole weren’t as funny as I’ve seen. Perhaps, the female Quince (Lally Cadeau) softens the troop’s crude and chummy dynamic. Here, blind casting may not have been as effective as Buliung or Goad strutting in Titania’s white gown.
“The course of true love never did run smooth,” says Lysander. Whether Lysander is a guy or a gal, love’s topsy-turvy obstacle course is unrelenting for her passionate competitor. Love isn’t easy. Not then, not now. Not for fairies or mortals, no matter the sexual orientation. While Abraham makes many changes to Dream, those changes prove one thing remains the same: love makes athletes of us all.
The Stratford Festival presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Festival Theatre until October 11th. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.stratfordfestival.ca.
photo credit: Michael Cooper