Saturday, March 15, 2014

Midsummer hits a bum note

These actors are "wooden" in a good way. Photos: Alastair Muir.

I've begun to develop a personal theory about Shakespeare, and how civilization has related to him over the centuries.  We all know, of course, the standard line about his universality, about how the canon is ever renewed, ever fresh, in age after theatrical age. But it seems that just as every age finds something of itself in the long arc of the canon, so every generation must also exclude something that's key to it. As Shakespeare generated so much of what we are, we perforce must always be smaller than he is.

In the eighteenth century (for instance) it was the mindless tragedy of King Lear that had to be denied - indeed, rewritten; in the nineteenth century, it was the horny songs and jokes that had to be bowdlerized, or excised. It's not that these ages didn't understand what these particular plays or scenes were about - indeed, perhaps they understood them only too well. It's that they couldn't countenance what they were about. And over and over again, Shakespeare's most ardent admirers have consistently behaved much the same way; they always turn a blind eye to part of his vision.

These days, I'd nominate A Midsummer Night's Dream as the play we cannot accept, the great statement on love that we must somehow deny. The latest evidence supporting this thesis recently arrived at ArtsEmerson from the Bristol Old Vic (it plays through this weekend), which I've been mulling for several days.  On the one hand, it's big, smart Shakespeare, of a kind we haven't seen in Boston for years.  And its director, Tom Morris, of the brilliant Handspring Puppet Company (think War Horse) has built his production around an insightful idea: his Midsummer is being entirely dreamed by its "mechanicals" (Bottom, Snug, Snout, et al.), the workmen who are at the "bottom" of its romantic and economic totem pole, but who are actually as central to Shakespeare's vision as his famous fairies are.  (If you don't already know it, the plot of Midsummer is here.)

Let me explain.  Perhaps the core message of Midsummer is the idea that love, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder - and if love is in the eye of the beholder, then so is tragedy. Thus the mechanicals (another word for "puppet," perhaps?) dream of achieving the tragic heights of the Bard's self-burlesque, "Pyramus and Thisbe" (he was, tellingly, writing Romeo and Juliet at the same time), even as the play's lovers famously go through a series of preposterous romantic permutations, falling in and out of love with each other at the whim of a fairy charm, and tearing their passions to tatters in the process.

The point, though, is the very Shakespearean idea that both visions are true at once. The lovers are both absurd and grand; the mechanicals are simultaneously ridiculous and sublime. And their burlesque of Romeo and Juliet meets its clearest mirror among the fairies, with Oberon's attempted humiliation of his lover Titania, whom he seduces (via the same spell that torments the lovers) into falling in love with a literal ass: a "translated" Bottom who wanders through the centerpiece of the play wearing a donkey head.

The Warner Bros. version.
Of course Shakespeare (and Bottom!) are too gallant to actually degrade or demean the ethereal Titania. Indeed, the Bard elides Oberon's cruel intentions so cleverly that Titania's infatuation charms, and her interlude with Bottom has become a touchstone of our cultural depiction of love's folly. (At left, James Cagney and Anita Louise in Max Reinhardt's glittering Warner Bros. version from 1935.)

But here is where is the Bristol Old Vic suddenly goes wildly wrong, and the mistake is all the more glaring given that so much of their concept has so far been so smart and provocative. For Morris has dared to make a Midsummer that eschews all superficial magic; this version is sprinkled with sawdust, not stardust - just as the mechanicals might dream it. So everyone is dressed in carpenter's overalls, and the Athenian wood is literally wood - planks that the actors cleverly "choreograph" into glens and groves (at top).  Other roles are represented by pine blocks, and Oberon and Titania are likewise conjured from masks that we see being crafted on lathes and saws. Puck himself is an amalgam of errant tools; and the whole thing takes place on a makeshift stage - much like the one that might have served as the backdrop for "Pyramus and Thisbe."

So Morris has turned Shakespeare's thematic conceit onto his play itself: and in a word, brilliant. Once you get over the shock of finding no fairy dust at play in this play at all - and the fact that the verse, though well spoken, is enunciated entirely (and appropriately) in working-class accents - you begin to revel in the wit of the staging, which if not quite at the level of War Horse, still brims with good ideas and knock-about slapstick (the lovers - Akiya Henry, Alex Felton, Kyle Lima, and Naomi Cranston - prove particularly spry). There's even a lovely moment in which the sprites of the forest bang out a lullaby to Titania by turning their 2x4s into an impromptu xylophone.  Magic.

Bottom before hitting bottom.
But then we get to Bottom's "translation," and everything goes to hell.  For Morris suddenly somehow forgets the point of his own concept. We fully expect some major puppetry at this juncture, perhaps with a horse-laugh tossed at the obvious Bottom/ass pun, but what we get is a contraption that's a mix of War Horse and Ass Master, as imagined by H.R. Giger. Poor Bottom (the unbelievably resilient Miltos Yerolemou, at right) is hoisted into a kind of harness-on-wheels that lifts his naked bum north (he's in a thong, but just barely), and pushes his face far south.  Yes, he "assumes the position," as they say on certain websites, while donkey "ears" are slipped over his shins; and he's presented to us thusly, with Shakespeare's lines apparently coming out of his bunghole.

I'll say this much: I'll never forget this image. Much as I may try to. It's probably the most dehumanizing thing I've ever seen done to a performer outside of a strip show - actually, make that including the few strip shows I've been to, even that one in Rio. Although make no mistake - you won't find a bigger fan of the male derrière than yours truly; and my hat is off to Mr. Yerolemou, since he has so valiantly dropped trou for me (or rather his crazy director). Like all honest and talented actors, he hangs onto his dignity, somehow - only Mr. Morris doesn't.

Because listening to someone's ass fart the Bard simply trashes the true theme of Midsummer, and squashes its music flat; this is not what Shakespeare's Dream is about. Sorry, Don Aucoin, and all you Globe subscribers, but - NO.  Only of course it's what our age is about, isn't it. We can no longer see the beauty of Titania's delusion - we must deny the charming parallel between her burlesque of love and the mechanicals' burlesque of tragedy, for the professors have explained to us (over and over again) that Oberon's gambit is all about subjugation, domination, and disgust (indeed, every weekend Harvard and Diane Paulus tell us it's actually about bestiality). And their false o'erweighs Shakespeare's true; they can't understand that the Bottom line, as it were, is that Oberon's plot fails. Jimmy Cagney and Anita Louise, not to mention Balanchine, Britten, Fuseli, Mendelssohn, and the rest - they were all wrong; today we know better.

Oh, well. There is no form of vulgarity more insidious than the vulgarity that comes with a college degree.  So I suppose Midsummer is lost to us for the time being, or at least as long as Harvard and Emerson College hold sway over our cultural scene. Of course Shakespeare does have a way of surviving his misinterpreters. And maybe someday we'll wrest sex back from the Internet, and love away from the academy, and we'll be able to see Midsummer clearly again.  

Although right now we can't even hear all its lines.  Tellingly, Morris strips out most of the Bard's language from the Titania and Bottom scenes, and substitutes dumb jokes about kissing ass. Later he deep-sixes the "lover, lunatic and the poet" aria - arguably the play's most famous speech (despite having a quite capable actor, David Ricardo-Pearce, on hand to say it), and cuts Puck's closing benediction ("If we shadows have offended . . ."), probably its second most famous speech.   Not that any of the other critics noticed - which only kind of proves my point. As I said, every age denies - or perhaps willfully forgets - something in Shakespeare; and so each age gets the Shakespeare it deserves. The eighteenth century got Midsummer.  We get King Lear.  Hmmm.  I'm not sure that's a fair trade . . .

Saskia Portway conjures Titania from a block of wood.

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