April 29, 2004

A Dreamless Sleep

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I promised myself that I would put away the razor, or at least dull it, for this review of Gateway’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Gateway Theatre Company is Cornell’s only free theatre group, so I should be nothing but admiring and complementary, as I imagine it is no easy chore to attract quality actors to their productions. But the fact of the matter is I sat through over two hours of mediocre-to-bad theatre, so someone has to hear about it.

Judging by the ads around campus, I should have known what I was in for — another awkward theatrical misstep that all the effort in the world couldn’t save. But so often is the case with modern updates of Shakespearean classics.

Modernization is always a tricky business. What is the definition of a classic if not timeless? Then why bother? Much ado about nothing, I think. I simply can’t agree with director David Williams’s belief that “the original performances [of Shakespeare] are impossible to access and the merit of attempting to do so is dubious at best.” Shakespeare treats universal themes that transcend time and place, ones that I have no trouble relating to in their traditional setting.

It is true that carefully tuned modernizations can add a new dimension of brilliance, but such cases are few and far between (Romeo & Juliet, anyone?). In the case of Shakespeare, the plays are already so jam-packed and nuanced that any attempt at revitalization or imputation of new meaning is overkill and almost certain disaster. The tendency to misfire is as good as automatic. And while there may be precedence for this kind of reworking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starting with Peter Brook’s in the 1960’s, this production is amateurish at best. Gathered, the bulk of these actors are not theatre majors and have little or no theatrical experience. A traditional rendering of this play may have worked better on them, for these actors lack the skill to successfully pull off this surgery on Shakespeare.

They all started very cold, and it took a good ten minutes to warm up and relieve them of their lethargies. Once they did get into character, what was witnessed was something of a would-be coming-out party. There was altogether too much gratuitous kissing, drug references, sex, and lesbian action. Too much lesbian action?! No, I’m not one to pass up a good lesbian, particularly with the sexual chemistry here between Lysandra (Jenn Robinson) and Hermia (Miriam Peterson). I would only complain that this preoccupation suggests they are making up for something else. And they are. This play enjoys its own right to sexiness and edginess way too much. They would do better to concentrate on the acting and less on the sexual interplay. Actors stand waiting while another delivers their lines; their faces are blank, not knowing what to do. Unfortunately, the test of any good actor is the ability to give and take and to perform even when the spotlight is not theirs.

Sorry to be a tight-ass, but the lesbian action can go. That was not part of Shakespeare’s intention. Williams has taken the liberty of changing the sex of Lysander to Lysandra, contending that he is “adding a topical aspect to the text” by problematizing the issue of homosexuality. However, that directorial decision has greater consequences for the message of the play itself, setting up unusual dynamics and conflicts that are not properly dealt with or resolved at the play’s conclusion.

If there is one bright spot in the play, it is Chris Wilson as Bottom. Wilson knows the meaning of comic relief and he delivers. He is the one character in the cast who can fill a stage without anyone else on it. His performance is truly a treat and he simply makes the other actors better, enlivening them when he is on stage. Thank god. As a friend remarked to me, who drifted in and out of sleep during the play, it all felt like a dream.

Archived article by Jason Rotstein
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer