Bard in The Barracks
Odell Park, Fredericton, June-July 2009
A Midsummer Night's Dream is, in my opinion at least, one of the three and a half greatest stage comedies ever written (the others are The Importance of Being Earnest and Arcadia -- and, if it counts as a comedy, Waiting for Godot). What makes it so wonderful, I think, and the most playable of all of Shakespeare's plays, is the spectacularly orchestrated alternating rhythm among the scenes, the range of kinds of comedy (from pratfalls to the most elegant of wordplay), and the absolute coherence of its structure. There's also the pervasive pattern of dream metaphor that runs through the text; there's hardly a moment when we're not invited to think of this immediate experience -- and perhaps all of our lives around it -- as a dream.
I've seen dozens of productions, and really bad ones have been very rare: several have been among the most memorable productions I've ever seen, of anything. Now I have a new one to add to my store. Not, perhaps, the most subtle or brilliant or even memorably conceived of productions, but an absolutely unforgettable and an utterly dreamlike experience. Not dreamlike in the same way as the RSC production we saw in New York thirteen years ago, which brought you to think you were looking at a dream (my essay on it is here); this one propels you physically into the dream. Staged in nine different locations in Odell Park, with the audience led along from one location to another by a ghostly tattooed flautist in fairy costume (and by two or three unobtrusive guides, who occasionally indicate where the audience might array itself on a bridge or a bank or along the edge of a glade), the play uses the fecund late spring greenness of the signposted but unmanicured park as the darkening context in which the play's action unfolds, ending in a makeshift, lit stage under the still not quite dark sky, where the elegant Athenians condescend as the rude mechanicals put on their play, and finally the fairies drop from the trees around and take the space back for their own revels.
When I heard that the "Bard in the Barracks" summer Shakespeare show this year was not going to be performed in the downtown military compound, because of construction on the barracks, I was initially disappointed. While city buses and practicing bagpipers have occasionally posed problems for the shows in the past, there has been consistently something courageous and engaging about using the location a block off Fredericton's Queen Street. Passersby occasionally stopped to listen, or walked unsuspectingly through the acting space; actors appeared off the street or from around or within buildings in ways which connected Shakespeare with our contemporary experience. But then Len Falkenstein announced that the play this summer would be A Midsummer Night's Dream, and that it would use a number of locations in the park, moving the audience along with the action, and I immediately realized that there is no better play for such a context (though clearly last year's production, As You Like It, with its use of the Forest of Arden as a refuge from the Duke's court, might have used the park in a similar way).
In this case, though, the extended trip the audience takes, from the opening scene on the grass a hundred yards or so above the park's main entrance, into the arboretum and up, around and down, on often muddy trails and through a damp, green, leafy twilight, lures us imperceptibly, step by step, further into a dreamlike, surreal isolation: who are all these people, we think, here in the woods with us, and what are we to make of these fairies flitting around the edges of our vision, and where are we, anyway? "Up and down, up and down," says Puck triumphantly, "I will lead them up and down"; and we nod: yes, indeed. We are, for sure, in what Oberon calls "the fierce vexation of a dream." And it's not entirely just pleasantly dreamlike: it's fierce too, and perhaps just a touch nightmarish: there's mud, and rocks, and protruding roots, and the odd mosquito, and branches scraping across your face occasionally, and the struggle to see and hear when well over a hundred others are trying to see and hear too (as there were the second night I saw it).
This production begins with a conceit which is clever, though a bit stretched (and in any case I thought it turned out not to matter a whole lot): the Athenians are all members of the "Athens Springs Country Club" and the play begins at the nineteenth hole. Soon, though, once Shakespeare's elegant exposition is in place, a "waitress" at the club strips off her uniform to reveal that she's one of the fairies, Kelly Waterhouse's seductive flute sounds from up the trail, and we're off into the unknown, following our pied piper into the woods.
As has been the case in most of the productions of the Bard in the Barracks, the mostly young actors have mostly got their heads, and tongues, around Shakespeare's language, and are aware that this is Outdoor Theatre, so projection is at a maximum. We don't miss much, if occasionally subtleties of language get lost this way. The verbal byplay between the confused and bewitched Athenians tends to lose out to hysteria and pratfalls, and even the usually reliable Michael Holmes-Lauder, an otherwise magnificent Puck, occasionally missed the chance to make a line count (I always wait expectantly for Puck to wonder, coming upon the workmen rehearsing, to ask loftily, "What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here?" or to muse at the chaos among the Athenian lovers, "What fools these mortals be," and this Puck allowed those moments to slip by without much notice. On the other hand, physically he, and Titania and her fairies, are everything you could ever ask for, in terms of energy and atmosphere, scaling trees and appearing magically from nowhere, reminding us without being unobtrusive that we are, indeed, in fairyland. Oberon, in Scott Shannon's portrayal, is entirely in command, clear, disciplined, and grand ("This is thy negligence," he tells Puck across the glade where the Athenians have played out their confusion, and we flinch, too: "Still thou mistak'st, Or else committ'st thy knaveries wilfully." He and Adrienne Fitch make both the leading couples -- Oberon and Titania, and Theseus and Hippolyta (doubled, as the parts often are) clear and appealing and powerful.
The Hempen Homespuns, as I usually think of the tradesmen preparing their play for the Duke's wedding, are as exaggerated and overstated as you need to be, playing in the outdoors -- and, just as with the Athenian lovers, some subtleties are jettisoned in favor of slapstick. But their scenes are uniformly engaging, especially the overblown, passionate histrionics of Matthew Spinney as Bottom, who, as he ought, gives the production its bottom. Among the Athenian lovers, I especially liked Leah Holder's passionate, headlong Hermia and Jeff Dingle's elegantly awkward Lysander -- though, as is often the case, I could have used, across the board, a bit more attention to the structure of their arguments (particularly the wonderful verbal tennis matches between Hermia and Helena: "Aye, that way goes the game").
All this is not of much importance, though, next to the way the production leads us up and down, up and down, through a just slightly threatening, darkening fairy landscape, following the Athenians and sharing in their confusion, finding ourselves stepping out of the way of the panicked workmen as they run from the transformed Bottom, seeing out of the corner of our eye a fairy in a tree. As Puck sends us off and we start, blinking, down the darkened, torchlit path to the parking lot, it seems for just a moment entirely possible that we "have but slumber'd here While these visions did appear."