“The spring, the summer, / The childing autumn, angry winter change / Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world, / By their increase, now knows not which is which,” Titania cried, raising her voice to the heavens as a summer –– or was it winter? Or spring? –– storm unfolded around her bared, gleaming shoulders. Lightning cut through the trees; wind moaned as branches crashed to the ground. She was in full control of her element now.
This — a nuanced interpretation of a scene that, in its most robust iterations, is all about the volatile nature of seasons, but is generally performed in a springy and unchanging wood — is the kind of creative moment that defines Midsummer, Sarah Holdren and Rachel Carpman’s inaugural show at the Yale Summer Cabaret. Seamless in its adaptation, Midsummer turns Shakespeare’s play joyfully on its head, exposing the whimsical, comedic, and sinister that stirs the rough magic of his brain.
The play runs through June 21.
A little Shakespeare recap, for those of us who haven’t seen or read the play since high school. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from which Midsummer gets its name and textual foundation, is one of those texts within texts, where everything means something else and coincidence does not exist. Set largely in a magical wood, the play jumps between a group of six tradesmen turned amateur actors who are rehearsing a play for King Theseus, four lovers who are, grace à arranged marriages, in a bit of a bind and run away because of it, and fairy royalty Oberon and Titania, whose own relationship has soured. A child’s fate also hangs in the balance. There’s cluttered, mystic overlap at every turn. Poultices and floral potions don’t work quite as they are supposed to, spells go awry, characters are brought together and torn apart and brought together again, and everything ends happily ever after. Well, sort of.
Midsummer capitalizes on all of these elements in the most succinct and graceful of ways. Picking the tastiest and wittiest morsels from the original script — and, as Donald Brown has pointed out in the New Haven Review, “virtually every play in the Shakespeare corpus” — Holdren and Carpman have masterfully boiled the original three storylines and uniting events of A Midsummer Night’s Dream down to two, consolidating the narrative without cutting any of its magic. To the contrary, they add some of their own, and the work is better for it. The fairy Puck exists in a dimension where time and space are wholly malleable. Four of the mechanicals become the lovers. The king of amateur actors becomes the king of fairies, and the concept of a dark dreamscape is fully explored.
Midsummer is one of those pieces that reveals not only Shakespeare’s genius, but the uncanny ability of his early modern words to withstand the test of time. Performed in the twenty-first century, Puck’s character, “that merry wanderer of the night,” collides not only with the spectacle of modernized drag, but also with realities of ecological peculiarities. Oberon and Titania’s struggle for the “changeling child” lends itself to ambivalent and complex racial metaphors. The tradesmen reveal, bit by bit, the quirks and humor of amateurs trying to do something really big, in a way that ends up being funny and wonderfully thoughtful at the same time.
And for Holdren and Carpman, that’s just the beginning of something equally jocular and exquisite. From the textual mashup that builds Midsummer’s backbone, they have picked out a number of themes both otherworldly and not that wed Shakespeare’s world to ours. Physical labor and love, environmental destruction, global warming, the malleability of time, and the meaning of being wholly lost in a zone that is not, and will never be, yours, are all explored thoroughly. Forget a fourth wall; with a dedicated company behind them, the two artistic directors have forged a universe that is more like a fourth dimension. This is owing, in no small part, to Chris Thompson and Claire Deliso’s scenic design and an audiovisual tour de force by Andrew Griffin and Sinan Zafar.
Like everything else in the adaptation, Midsummer’s creative strategy is propelled by the dark, clever, and magical in Shakespeare: audience members are not placed in an ordinary wood but a magic one, where the trees whisper and nymphean creatures will chew you up and spit you out a different being, bones glittering and clean. Flowers glow and hum as they cast their magic; fairies rise up from the ground, sparkling as they whirr through the air. Puck booms and echoes when he speaks.
The ensemble itself makes a complex and nuanced script not only digestible, but uncannily charming. As Puck, Shaunette Renée Wilson anchors the production, committing to the impish “shrewd and knavish sprite” with a joyous sense of adventure and understanding of the character, whose reality depends on the wax, wane, and blur of universes magical and not. Melanie Field commands the stage as a majestic and particularly seductive Titania, wielding her power in a way that gives Shakespeare a distinctly feminist moment. Niall Powderly shines as both Peter Quince and Oberon, where he gives a performance that is equal parts corporeal and comic. The lovers (Leland Fowler, Christopher Ross-Ewart, Elizabeth Stahlmann, and Josephine Stewart) have something of Heiner Müller in them: They are beautiful bodies moving in beautiful ways in a deceptively beautiful space, doing shockingly unbeautiful things to each other.
But the most roughly magical delight is Andrej Visky as Nick Bottom, whose unfalteringly tragicomic, cometragic, and deeply physical antics become, with Puck propelling the narrative, the unexpected glue of the show. Puck’s words, echoing in the delicious darkness of the theater, may begin Midsummer, but Bottom’s, delivered in low light near the end, define the show and perhaps the spirit of the season: You must awake your faith.
Midsummer runs at the Yale Summer Cabaret through June 21. Get more information and tickets here.