“Are you sure / That we are awake?” (4.1.178-179)
As one of Shakespeare’s most iconic comedies, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” explores love and its potentially dreamlike manifestations, all while prompting us to consider the purpose of theater in bringing people together. On the eve of Duke Theseus’ wedding to Amazon queen Hippolyta, a fairy king and queen squabble, sending ripples across the natural world. Four Athenian lovers — Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena — and a company of lowbrow artisans are caught in the ensuing storm. The Stanford Shakespeare Company (StanShakes)’s winter production of the play, directed by Noah Bennett and produced by Ariela Algaze, simultaneously honors its literary legacy (all lines are straight from the Bard) while offering a gripping, modern-day reinterpretation that challenges how we view its themes.
As Bennett points out in his director’s note, major characters have changed genders, with Hermia played by a man. This nontraditional casting decision, immediately apparent from the start, breathes new life into how we understand the story and, as Algaze notes, “normalizes and celebrates queer love.” Demetrius (Reese Kennedy ‘22) shifts his attention from Hermia (Ryan Tan ‘21) to Helena (Lexi Stein ‘19), and Lysander (Jake Goldstein ‘19) from Hermia to Helena and back again. The interchangeability of their love interests emphasizes the irrationality of falling in love, when one choice is seemingly as good as any other. Nonetheless, there is beauty in the act itself, in the idiosyncrasies that spring out of such intimacy, the traits magnified and the choices made through the rose-tinted glasses of a budding relationship.
The actorial talents of the company shine, with each cast member perfectly suited to their role in gesture and voice, embodying archetypal character roles while adding personal flair. Indeed, the onstage chemistry of several characters makes the stakes even more tragic. In one heart-wrenching scene after Lysander temporarily forsakes Hermia, he forgets their shared hand signal (curled hands in the shape of half a heart that meet together in the middle); Hermia is left to wallow in the loss of his love and his sweeping tide of jealousy for the flabbergasted Helena, who has not one, but two men dueling for her attention. And the supporting actors, including the meek lion (Mai Lan Nguyen ‘22) and the forceful fairy king Oberon (Betty Lee ‘21), are only a few of the powerful voices that help cast a spell on the audience.
The overall set design creates a marvelous interplay that reflects how love and us “foolish mortals” straddle the lines of fiction and reality. The first scene in the polis has columnal drapes for the backdrop of the Duke’s speech and the introduction of the love quadrangle (Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander); soon after, the fairies tear away the fabric, symbolically disrupting traditional order. The ensuing scenes take place amidst a clearing in the woods, denoted by panels first layered with brown paint and then (as I overheard) brushed with the outlines of actual leaves — the ideal backdrop for characters who continuously question if they are “awake” or in a supernaturally induced slumber. And in between scene transitions where the audience is cast in darkness, the chirping of birds and soothing ambient noises can be heard, ideal moments for reflection. In another striking move, the voices of the fairies echo when they cast spells, particularly in the trickster Puck’s later weaving of a chaos that shatters our traditional understandings before she finally, reluctantly, restores order. Each component contributes to a liminal space where all possibilities are open for exploration, and the storylines can manifest the repressed desires of the Athenians and, perhaps to a lesser (or potentially greater) degree, the audience.
The costuming and makeup particularly add to this effect, with the fantastical characters in vibrant contrast to the muted tones of the Athenians. Even though the fairies are a product of fantasy, their bright colors indicate the very real qualities of what we consider dreams, epitomizing the natural disorder of love and life rigidly denied in Athenian society. The fairies boast dramatically highlighted faces with sharpened eyebrows, flowers and leaves studding their clothes and hair, and green, blue and red hues around their eyes that fan out or arc into symbolic curves. The mortals, with each lover in matching color to their significant other (yellow, green or blue), fade in comparison to the fairies that leap off stage and dance in the moonlight, lithely gliding on dance shoes or stepping in stylish combat boots. Though the Athenians have symbolic golden laurels and the occasional flashy sword, their clothing — like the fairies’ — is a timeless combination of different eras and styles, offering a visual fluidity not dependent on a contemporary era that could be a metaphor on its own.
And, of course, the laughs. We see characters comparing sword lengths, a fork hurtling from a pouch alongside a flurry of cards and coins, a fairy queen in the arms of a donkey who wants little more than her “good dry oats.” The talents of the company heighten the comedic bits. Still, Shakespeare’s suggestively witty remarks contrast with the all-too-real consideration of the inconstancy and universality of love in its many forms.
Lighthearted as the play may be, it also prompts us to consider how drama and play-acting — with a hearty sprinkle of humor — become the means for understanding ourselves. This theme is perhaps most strongly explored at the end, when the company of artisans put on the romantic tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe before the three pairs of newly married Athenians. With the staging decision to place the audience’s gaze between the company and the lovers, the audience becomes cognizant of the act of looking and experiencing theater itself, even as we chuckle along at the progressively unruly play within a play. All too soon, the bell tolls midnight, and the Athenians depart for their wedding nights and the evening soon comes to an end. But with the blessings of Oberon and Titania, we can use this rare reverie to marvel at how theater brings people together through creation and commentary, with much joy — and love — on both sides of the stage.
Such a production “shall seem a dream” with its marvelous execution and talented company, paying homage to the Bard while portraying a fresh understanding of the play. As I write this still firmly under the spell of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I know that attendees will leave their seats at the end of the evening similarly entranced by its magic.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” plays at the Elliott Program Center through Saturday, Feb. 23.