Saturday, August 23, 2014

Stratford comes out of the closet with Midsummer

Titania (Jonathan Goad) falls hard for Bottom (Stephen Ouimette) at Stratford. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

As gay marriage has swept the civilized world (and no, that does not include the Southland, or other Republican redoubts), I suppose it was inevitable it would catch up with Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream - as well as the rest of his comedies, as they almost all close with multiple marriages (Midsummer wraps with three, if you don't count Oberon and Titania's romantic reconciliation).

Still - who would have thought that Canada's venerable Stratford Festival would lead the charge out of the closet?  Yet that is what has happened with director Chris Abraham's landmark Midsummer, which has been devised as an entertainment for a gay marriage celebration in a Stratford backyard - much as  the burlesque "Pyramus and Thisbe" is performed for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta within Shakespeare's play. (So here "Pyramus" becomes a play-within-a-play-within-a-play, and Midsummer itself becomes something of a burlesque.)

Not everyone has been overjoyed about this. Indeed, this Midsummer has been met with vexed reviews - one major Toronto reviewer gave it four stars, but another not even one - and Chris Jones, down in gonzo/macho Chicago, likewise seemed a little uncomfortable with its anything-goes queer ethos. (Although Jones was careful not offend any political sensibilities: "Abraham is making a statement.  Good for him, say I. There is great value in a production that takes such joy in the sudden changes in the world. The moment should be marked."  Okay . . . thanks for letting us know, Chris.)

Now the subtext here (it seems to me) is a rich one, and has as much to do with Stratford as with Shakespeare. The Festival - which I've been attending for some thirty years - has long seemed to exist in a kind of glass closet; many of its leading lights were obviously gay, but a discreet veil fell over that fact in public discussion. And what Abraham has essentially done is tear that cultural hymen away - so there were bound to be ripples in the larger theatrical pond. He puts the Festival's most butch actors in drag, and the most femme ones in boots, and turns the romantic leads into lesbians for good measure. What's more, the production is so closely observed (the milieu of the hipster wedding is superbly realized) that it feels like the 'truest' update of Shakespeare I've ever seen. The actors really do just seem to be up there being themselves, evincing their own attitudes, gender-bent or not; there's a relaxed, funky vibe that's new at Stratford (and rare in any theatre). It has been said of many a production that the performers "seemed to be having a really good time" - but this Midsummer brings that kind of playful atmosphere to a whole new level.

Bottom and the mechanicals warm up "Pyramus and Thisbe" by the grill.

To be fair to the naysayers, however, I'd never argue that this is a penetrating exploration of the text.  It's a lark, not a lecture; a diversion, not a dissertation. Bottom wears an apron that reads "Daddy-o of the Patio," and Titania looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger dressed for the prom; later there's a food fight, and the fairies (a happy band of kids who scamper over everything, and don't care who's gay and who's not) sing Bruno Mars in the moonlight, before a disco ball descends for a dance-along to New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle." So you don't brood over this Midsummer, you boogie to it (when you're not dodging the wedding cake) - but in a wholesome, basically Shakespearean way.

Why do I say "basically Shakespearean"? Well, because here you never feel that anyone is pimping the Bard to sell drinks (as you do in other disco Midsummers which shall not be named!) - but also because sexuality as performance is a deep Shakespearean concern; indeed there's a clear parallel between millennial attitudes and the mood of his greatest comedies (and particularly the travesty of romantic tragedy that wraps this one).

Yet other Shakespearean basics do seem to be missing; indeed, the flaw in this Midsummer may be that it isn't gay enough - or rather, that there's no real sex (either gay or straight) in it. For if Oberon and Titania are both genial macho dudes (who end the evening with a boo-yah! chest bump), it's easy to like both of them, but hard to find any romantic tension (or poetry) between them; and a great Midsummer should have both. Still, director Abraham could counter that his production offers political, rather than poetic, insights: here, for instance, Lysander and Hermia's cry to be free to marry who they choose has a new and poignant resonance.

Perhaps this is an opportune moment to ponder a different Festival offering, which purported to dive deep into Shakespeare's text - Peter Sellars' "chamber" production of Midsummer, done with only four actors in a found space in Stratford.  (Yes, the Festival presented two opposing views of the same play this season, for the first time in its history.)

Only I actually can't ponder the Sellars Midsummer - because I bailed on it. The noises the director had made were discouraging (he said he was trying to find common ground between Shakespeare and Strindberg!!), and the local buzz was negative - while two friends who did see it gave it a thumbs-down. So while I had tickets, suddenly I just couldn't face it. The whole shebang - texts cut by half, whispering actors, arty installations, "intensity" - it all seemed so pretentiously dated. (And to be honest, it also sounded like an artifact from another kind of cultural closet.  If gay marriage kills off that whole theatrical faction, I found myself thinking, it will have really accomplished something!)

So I traded my ticket to the Sellars for one to King John - which I'll consider in the second part of this series on the Stratford Festival.

(To be continued.)

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