Friday, January 15, 2010

The Dream is over, we'll have to carry on . . .

Good-bye to all that - Henry Fuseli's vision of Midsummer.

I suppose no Shakespearean text has been as brutally raped by the academy as A Midsummer Night's Dream. Once a cherished vision of the commingled absurdity and transcendence of romantic love, it's now basically a kind of longform video on some pop-academic version of Pornhub - bound and shackled by the likes of Jan Kott, with a rubber ball in its mouth courtesy of Michel Foucault. Once, it inspired Mendelssohn; now, it's a career vehicle for Diane Paulus, our reverse-incarnation of the Puritanical Nahum Tate. Oh, what a falling off was there!

Still, I suppose that's life - but if you want some sense of how the professoriat is poisoning the springs of our culture, look no further than the bizarre level of approval accorded The Donkey Show. One expects, of course, the press to praise the latest from Harvard, whatever it may be - that's the memo the editors don't even have to send; and I'm well aware our cash-strapped "greatest university" needs a new revenue stream, so I have no problem with it opening a topless bar. Desperate times, desperate measures, etc.; and hey, I've spent Saturday night in Providence, too. But when Harvard pretends its topless bar is presenting "Shakespeare" - well, that's where I draw the line.

Not that anyone else does. Consider the reviews for the Actors' Shakespeare Project's A Midsummer Night's Dream (which is actually pretty tame by the standards of the postmodern syllabus). It moves the Globe's Don Aucoin to opine, for instance, that Diane Paulus "does not hold a monopoly on creative interpretations of the Bard," and that the ASP production is "another fun and creative interpretation." Well, good for them! But notice the stupidity creep latent in those lines: The Donkey Show is now the standard by which other productions are judged. Harvard has just succeeded in dumbing us down another notch.

But back to the Actors' Shakespeare Project, whose Midsummer is fairly harmless, but not really . . . all that . . . good. It's a little slow and very broad and pretty declamatory (albeit in a postmodern mode), plus its "urban environment" concept feels rote (the DeGrassi kids go to the inner city yet again) and is anyway just an excuse to fill "the woods outside Athens" with various figures from pop culture: Oberon is Keith Richards/Johnny Depp, Titania is Courtney Love (or maybe our local knock-off, Amanda Palmer), her bower is of course a bombed-out car, while Bottom is Donnie Wahlberg . . . sigh. It would have been nice to have been surprised at least once by the production's choices - but then again, how precisely could pop culture be bent to Shakespeare's purposes anyhow? His fairyland provides a psychological odyssey for both his audience and his characters - his lovers emerge from the forest transformed and shaken, their assumptions undermined but their faith confirmed. And how, exactly, could pop, which amplifies the ego but never questions it, ever do that?

But what I mourn most about our current approach to Midsummer is that we've lost all sense of the play's stunningly grand design. This is the play in which Shakespeare truly became Shakespeare - or at least it's the play in which his horizons suddenly exploded, and he realized he could bend just about all of past Western culture to his will, and at the same time produce a template for its future. The Midsummer cast list comes closer to the universal than that of perhaps any other play; it stretches from the mythological (Theseus and Hippolyta) to the fantastic (Puck and Oberon) to the quotidian (the carpenters and weavers of Stratford-on-Avon). The play's social vision is penetratingly astute; its action is one of the most perfectly modeled farces ever constructed. And at the same time it's one of the greatest flights of poetry and one of the deepest meditations on love ever conceived.

But please, before you say it, can we let go of our childish attachment to the supposed sexual sadomasochism latent in the play? Today's Shakespeareans often seem like kids trawling the Internet for the dirty stuff - they know it's in the canon, if only they surf hard enough! Sure, Oberon wants to humiliate Titania - and his reason, her guardianship of her "changeling" boy, is one of those endlessly-suggestive Shakespearean motifs (like Hamlet's madness, or Shylock's pound of flesh) that will defy forever complete analysis. Likewise Egeus wants to control his daughter's sex life (the motivation here is not so hard to parse). But do either of these supposed representatives of the masculine id succeed in their aims? No, they do not, and they certainly don't represent Shakespeare's POV.

The whole play is of course obviously opposed to Egeus, and Oberon's jealous designs are completely undone by Bottom, one of Shakespeare's true innocents and certainly one of his great gallants. Yes, the sweet-natured weaver is translated into an ass, as befits one who lacks all self-awareness - but that very lack allows him to all but ignore his alarming transmogrification, and his confident gap in self-consciousness makes him dazzled but clear-eyed about the fairies (and by extension love itself). And when it comes to sex, this perfect, if furry, gentleman hardly takes advantage of the besotted Titania - indeed, he seems to assume she's some kind of mental patient, and delights in the charming Cobweb and Peaseblossom instead (needless to say, in the Diane Paulus version, he mounts her from behind - probably the greatest crime against Shakespeare the A.R.T. has yet committed). Oberon undoes Bottom's enchantment not because he has succeeded in humiliating Titania (he hasn't), and not even because he has won back his changeling boy, but because her idyll with Bottom forces him to see his own vanity.

Or at least these are the deep, humane lessons that we used to allow the Bard to teach us. Now, however, we insist on cutting him down to our own size; we know better than he does; we don't want to watch his work "grow to something of great constancy." Thus the fairies in the ASP Dream are just urchins from the 'hood, and the play's rhythms are reduced to rap, which of course delights the crunchy Cantabridgians in the audience, but I'm afraid leaves me cold. Bottom and the "mechanicals" are likewise patronized into excuses for parodies of ballet (which actually, via Balanchine, is the only place you can get a glimpse of the real Midsummer anymore), or the A.R.T., or - oh, who knows, and who cares. I mean what can you say when Theseus is styled as Donald Trump and Hippolyta is Pocahontas? There is one lovely idea in the show - the broken TV that fitfully shows images of Titania's lost votress, the mother of her changeling. For a brief moment, something like romance flickers through the theatre. More, please.

Michael Kaye and Maurice Parent toy with "love in idleness."

The surprise is that a few actors do make some headway despite the ongoing car crash of bad ideas. The "young" lovers, although they all look to be about 45, are played by pretty funny and resourceful actors, and their antics in the wood do prove amusing. So hooray for Mara Sidmore, Shelley Bolman, Jennie Israel, and Christopher James Webb! Alas, I didn't particularly care for Michael Kaye's pallid Oberon or Marianna Bassham's rock-chick Titania, but Maurice Parent did make a menacing (perhaps too-menacing) Puck. And Trent Mills occasionally had a good idea as a broader-than-broad Thisbe in what must have been the longest fifth act of this play I've ever seen. But then the final word on this production is that it's utterly self-indulgent - you could drive a semi through half the cues, and Robert Walsh and John Kuntz in particular are prone to stretches of schtick that seem to last for hours.

And I must say these performances almost seemed to me to blur into performances I remember from other shows - because frankly, one A.S.P. show is so much like another. I'm not sure, in fact, that any other local company operates in quite as tight a stylistic straitjacket - and isn't that a bit odd, given the supposed breadth and depth of the playwright in question, and the fact that they're constantly inviting new directors to work with them? Clearly a particularly virulent form of groupthink has set in. So how about it, A.S.P.? How about no more halter tops or cowboy boots for the women, no more 70's-rummage-sale costumes, and no more self-conscious fuss over interracial or cross-gender casting? How about you lose the air quotes, stop trying to be hip, and don't think about "the other," or feminism, or the color bar for just one production? Just try it. See what happens. You might be surprised. And you can count on one thing - the results would be like no Shakespeare production Boston has seen in years.

1 comment:

  1. Nice point about how A Midsummer Night's Dream "is the play in which Shakespeare truly became Shakespeare." I've long felt that up until that point, Will had been satisfied to improve upon already established theatrical genres, or twist genre conventions as far as they could go, but Midsummer represents an entirely new genre.