There are ultimately two questions audience members will ask themselves at the outset of any contemporary Shakespeare production: what has the production done to modernize the play and what, if anything, have they done to subvert it? Productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, arguably the most popular of Shakespeare’s comedies, usually offer little in terms of subversion, but one prop cell phone will inevitably change the reading of even the most otherwise straight-up portrayal of the world’s first 80’s sitcom episode.
Entering the Little Lake Theater, I wondered these things. A theater that’s chosen a somewhat jester-ly Shakespeare as its de facto mascot has about a 50/50 shot of bending in genteel worship to the hallowed script as it does exploding it.
As it happens, Jena Oberg’s production is subversive only in aesthetic. Rather than utilizing faux mid-century garb, characters are adorned with 19th and early 20th century English attire; this is a play that begins with a game of cricket. It’s an interesting choice in that it grounds the story in an era far more popularly portrayed in film and television, therefore giving the audience a greater sense of place while still maintaining a certain sense of good old days nostalgia appealing to a far wider demographic.
It’s this intelligent design that represents the best elements of Little Lake’s production. In so many ways, this is a production that wants to sharpen the spear that is this play. There is an objectively satisfying comedic structure buried within Midsummer; the trick to revealing it lies in a comfortable and comprehending audience who understand immediately the motivations and essences of all 37 (I think that’s the right number) characters who all speak in prose that some people in the United States literally believe is a foreign language.
Very few productions of Midsummer intrinsically understand the barrier here, but I think Little Lake’s precision in design and performance reveal both a palpable love of the play and a caring attitude towards its potentially wide audience. I was impressed at how lively the second half of the production really felt. This wasn’t open mic Shakespearian comedy – there was no pause for the laughter that never comes. This was “oh my god, Bottom has become an ass” Shakespearian comedy. There’s a real skill to breaking the density of language here that’s laudable, even more so than other successful productions. The comedy here doesn’t shine because of big, obvious physical cues, but genuine comprehensive performances of characters.
This success is due in no small part to Paige Borak’s Helena and Eric Mathews’ Bottom. Borak’s Helena is more than a touch Valley Girl, but she’s also more than that caricature. I’ve seen more than a few productions where Helena is reduced to this groveling, obsessive weirdo masochistically beating herself to death against an uninterested Demetrius. Borak’s talent is in showcasing Helena’s genuine, likable naivety. I could feel the audience silently rallying around her character in the play’s highest moments of comedic drama.
Eric Mathews’ Bottom, then, is a more classic portrayal of the play’s most popular social satire. There is a balance to Bottom’s bombast in his performance I appreciated. Mathews’ approach is not all or nothing, he’s not constantly sprinting around the stage in anguish or self flagellation – except where he needs to do so.
Still, even in the face of some pretty cool set design – mystical woodland fairy swing! – Midsummer’s busy opening act feels claustrophobic and indeterminable. An uneasy tone is set at the start: Puck (James Curry) freezes time and alters space to ruin Theseus’ (Jeff Johnston) game of Croquet, dramatically lassoing in characters from offstage. There is a percussion-heavy piece of ominous contemporary music providing the soundtrack. While it’s a neat visual effect, it gives the play a sense of mystery right before introducing a torrent of characters and plot complications, which further burdens an already front-loaded plot.
While one deviance from a plot otherwise set in stone is hardly reason to feel negatively towards a production, Oberg’s navigation of Midsummer’s complexity isn’t as sure-handed in the play’s first half as it is the second. There’s something to be said for maintaining the pace of the play’s whip smart dialogue, but the moderately fast pace at the play’s outset detracts from a sense of space and time necessary to fully seed each pivotal turn in the plot, and as a result Oberon (Eric Leslie) and Titania (Kaitlin Kerr) can get lost in the jumble.
Still, this is a heartfelt and effective portrayal of a classic play too often dressed as melodrama or betrayed as upper class slapstick. Little Lake’s Midsummer is the rare production of Shakespearian comedy I would comfortably recommend to anyone without apology.
Special thank to the Little Lake Theatre for complimentary press tickets. A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through November 5th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photo credit: James Orr