July 31, 2019

Fairies Disrupt Romance in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream;” Princeton Summer Theater Reinterprets Shakespeare’s Comedy

“A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM”: Performances are underway for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Directed by Maeli Goren, the play runs through August 4 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. Nick Bottom (Chamari White-Mink, center) entertains the company with a play within the play. (Photo by Kirsten Traudt)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton Summer Theater is presenting a bold, somewhat abstract reinterpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. William Shakespeare’s comedy (c. 1595), in which fairies disrupt the romantic lives of ancient Athenians, is an apt choice for a season whose mission is to “explore love in all its forms.”

Director Maeli Goren has added an environmental focus, going so far as to begin the play with a speech that does not appear in the script until the second act. Titania, Queen of Fairies, offers this warning: “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. And this same progeny of evils comes from our debate, from our dissension.”

Goren is a director with a distinct style, and she is skillful in selecting plays that give her sufficient latitude to add and develop her viewpoint. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fine example, because of its fantasy storyline and characters, and a play-within-a-play. This production features elements which Goren has utilized in the past, including gender-bending casting and the use of puppetry.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream often is associated with iconic images of idyllic moonlit forests. Notable examples include the paintings Hermia and Lysander (1870) by John Simmons, and Midsummer Eve (c. 1908) by Edward Robert Hughes.

Goren rejects such ethereal imagery in favor of a harsher, dystopian aesthetic. In keeping with the ecological theme, a potted plant is the only greenery that disrupts a metallic, sterile tableau. The stage is littered with silver trash cans and buckets, and white detergent bottles form the base of puppets used in the show. Megan Berry’s lighting is bright — antithetical to a moonlight setting — finally dimming a bit to offer a warmer, more relaxing atmosphere to mark the arrival of Puck and the fairies.

Audiences who have attended other productions at the Hamilton Murray Theater will notice that even the performance space has been altered. There is seating at the back and sides of the proscenium stage, so that this production is presented in the round. Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set consists of metal poles that form a greenhouse-like structure; this transparency is echoed by one of the props: a clear plastic umbrella.

This production obviously seeks to startle audiences. Nevertheless, much of its design can be linked to the story, which begins with Theseus, Duke of Athens, discussing his impending wedding to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. (Some scholars have hypothesized that the play was written to be part of the celebration of an aristocratic wedding, though the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website asserts “there is no conclusive evidence to confirm this theory.”)

The set and costumes connect with the wedding motif, despite the considerable extent to which they oppose the serenity of the tableaux offered by previous interpretations. The greenhouse somewhat resembles a wedding arch or gazebo, especially when lit with festive lanterns.

Jules Peiperl’s costumes employ a color palette of bridal white or ivory. A notable exception the brown shirt and blue overalls worn by Nick Bottom, a weaver and one of the “rude mechanicals” who perform in Pyramus and Thisbe, a play-within-a-play with which the wedding guests are entertained.

This color scheme extends to a white bird, which is a puppet; and to a beige marionette, which has a pseudo-human appearance. These eerie creations by puppet designer Toria Sterling are part of a distinguishing characteristic of multiple Maeli Goren productions: the use of puppetry to explore an undercurrent of manipulation. In The Children’s Hour (which Goren directed for PST last year), an angry student manipulates the emotions and mores of the adults in her life, while in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the machinations of the fairies — especially Puck — affect the lives of the Athenians.

All of the cast members are talented, and deliver their lines with conviction. But in places (particularly the latter half) there tends to be a sameness of vocal inflection and volume. Added nuance would ensure that all of the characters speak with a disparate voice, aiding the audience in distinguishing them. This is essential in a show in which actors play dual, even triple roles.

However, there are some entertaining performances here. Allison Spann has boundless energy as Puck, the mischievous prankster and slightly dangerous spirit whose mistake (smearing a love potion on the eyelids of the wrong character) sets much of the plot in motion. Spann prances around the stage, giving the audience a merry wink that lets them in on the tricks that Puck plays on the other characters.

The production also makes use of Spann’s considerable talents as a musician. Onstage she plays accordion; behind the scenes she is the composer of the otherworldly incidental music — which, along with Naveen Bhatia’s sound design, creates an artfully disorienting effect.

Chamari White-Mink is exuberant as the arrogant Nick Bottom. Michael Rosas as Oberon, King of Fairies, and Thesus; and Maeve Brady as Hippolyta and Titania, bring the note of strong authority required by their roles. Dylan Blau Edelstein’s placid performance as Helena, the unassuming young woman who is in love with Demetrius, provides the needed contrast to the brashness of some of the other characters. Rosas and Edelstein also portray, respectively, the Mechanicals Snout and Flute.

Ross Barron succeeds in his dual roles of Demetrius, who is engaged to Helena but in love with Hermia; and Peter Quince, a carpenter who also is the author of Pyramus and Thisbe. Regan McCall is impassioned as Hermia, who is courted by Demetrius but in love with Lysander; she also portrays Snug, one of the Mechanicals. Justin Ramos ably finesses his dual roles of Lysander, who is Hermia’s suitor, and Starveling, another Mechanical.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is intricate, as it consists of multiple, interconnecting plots. Audience members unfamiliar with the play are encouraged to consult one of numerous resources (including Bardweb.net or Wikipedia) for a synopsis prior to seeing the production, because the action can be a bit difficult to follow.

However, disorientation is integral to this play. As Puck observes in his final speech, “You have but slumber’d here while these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, no more yielding but a dream.” What emerges is an engaging, surreal pageant, in which the actors, real and fictitious, revel in performing.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through August 4. For tickets, show times, and further information call (732) 997-0205 or visit www.princetonsummertheater.org/midsummer.