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If you have the notion that America's liberal arts colleges are hidebound guardians of the past, mired in fossilizing traditions, you may wish to check out Davidson College's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Unorthodox thinking was already obvious when I looked at the cover of the playbill. Instead of the Grecian colonnades or laurel wreathes you might expect for a lyrical Shakespearean comedy that mostly transpires within 25 miles of Athens, the cameo portrait of Fairy Queen Titania and the bewitched Bottom is done in comic strip style. All of the basic info – title, playwright, director, dates – is set in that impossibly perfect hand-lettering recognizable by those who grew up worshiping Superman and Batman. Furthermore, entering Duke Family Performance Hall, I was already tipped off to the fact that director Ann Marie Costa would be infusing the Bard's text with plenty of hip-hop rhythms and dance, thanks to the ministrations of beatmaker Mighty DJ DR and spoken word artists Boris "Bluz" Rogers and Carlos Robson.
Given the problematical acoustics of the Duke, I was fairly anxious about what I might need to contend with in the style – and the beat – of this production concept. But there was more. In the opening scene, when Egeus petitions the heroic Duke Theseus in hopes that he will force his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius, the groom he intends for her, there were a couple of radical switches. Hermia's father was nowhere to be found, replaced by Egeia, a heartless mother. Perhaps more shocking, Hermia's true love, Lysander, had also disappeared, replaced by Lydia. If Joe Gardner's elegantly simple set design and Martha Making's contemporary costumes weren't enough, Lydia's plan to elope with Hermia and marry her assured me that we weren't in ancient Athens anymore.
I would have been dizzy with disorientation if these alterations had been delivered with hip-hop embroidering, but the lovers' couplets and the mechanicals' prosaic rehearsal scene afterwards were plainly spoken. As so often happens, the uniqueness of a Midsummer Night's Dream production becomes manifest when we leave Athens behind and plunge into the nearby woods. Costa says in her director's notes that she was inspired by a recent visit to New York City, where she saw spontaneous performances by street musicians, beatmakers, and break dancers in the city's public parks. The nocturnal woods is exactly the right place for disorientation to be encouraged.
As soon as we first saw Puck conversing with the First Fairy, we got a steady flow of hip-hop movement, choreographed Emily Hunter – with plenty of urban attitude – accompanying the hip-hop reaffirmations that most of the fairy dialogue is rhymed. Tatiana Pless was so vivacious as the Fairy that I presumed she was Puck for a few moments, but not to worry, Pless got more play and multiple costume changes as Mustardseed and Moonshine. Graham Marema was quite engaging as Puck after her comparatively subdued arrival, but it was Colin Bye's bravura exploits as Puck's master, King Oberon, that enabled the whole hip-hop concept to click. His tall frame topped with a pom knit hat, Bye became a living, breathing testimonial to the efficacy of YouTube hip-hop tutorials. He rarely moved from one spot on stage to another without a lithe moonwalking glide – nearly on point, increasing the impact of his lanky height. The sensation Bye made as Oberon was only enhanced by the starchy, stiff, and proper impression he made in his other role as Theseus in the opening scene.
While discord between Hermia and her mom unsettles Athens, there is parallel discord in the fairy kingdom, where the proud Queen Titania is denying custody of an adorable kidnapped boy – and conjugal visitations! – to King Oberon. To bring peace to both kingdoms, Oberon must teach Titania a lesson and restore Demetrius to his previous fiancée, Helena. Oberon dispatches Puck to retrieve a faraway flower whose juice can be made into a love potion that can be applied to a sleeper's eyes. When the sleeper awakes, he or she will fall in love with the first person or animal that comes into sight. Oberon himself applies the potion to Titania, but fortunately, he deputizes Puck to find Demetrius and apply that same potion so that he'll become enamored with Helena again when he awakes. Half of the fun we experience in the woods results from Puck messing up and applying the potion to Lydia instead of Demetrius. The other half comes from what Puck gets right, transforming the incorrigible Nick Bottom into a man with a donkey's head in the middle of the mechanicals' inept rehearsal. That's who – or what – Titania sees when she first awakes.
After seeing Midsummer numerous times before, I found Kanise Thompson a little less shrewish than most Titanias because of the boogie in her movement and the hip-hop delights of her fairy entourage. Arrayed in the funky garments of the hip-hop culture, this entourage combined to make the queen's bedtime the most regal event of the evening. Thompson did reappear later in the evening as Hippolyta, whose nuptials with Theseus were another regal event, but her best moments came when she heaped love on the repellent Bottom and when she sensuously reconciled with Oberon. Although he couldn't compete with the most commanding Bottoms that I've seen, Sam Giberga had some bodacious moments as Nick, particularly when he was vaunting his versatility as an actor and getting vamped by the queen. Louder braying, please!
Thanks largely to the fine body mic setups by sound designer Neil Reda, the whole hip-hop concept went so well for me that acclimating to the gender and sexuality alterations presented more of a challenge. Sarah Kostoryz as Helena may have more reason to be offended by Lydia's advances, but the text offers no guidance, and she reacted as if a Lysander were still pursuing her. I've also seen more vicious taunting of her shorter rival Hermia when their antipathy heats up. As Hermia, Izem Ustun could have given the most conventional performance among the lovers, for it made no difference who her admirers were when both of them abandoned her. However, Uztun swam bravely against handicap of her relative conventionality, no more sensitive to Hermia's shortness than Kostoryz's provocations warranted.
Soft-pedaling her altered sexuality, Blaire Ebert was a very courtly and principled Lydia, and she tore after Demetrius fearlessly. Now when Lydia's conflict with Demetrius escalated from verbal to physical, I could perceive some difficulties in the audience. As Lydia and Demetrius rolled over one another on the forest floor, there seemed to be a mixture of shocked silence, nervous laughter, and redoubled laughter from various sections of the house. There was no avoiding it: the lesbian Lydia's attack on the straight Demetrius often had the look of lovemaking as they lingered on the floor. Similar to Ebert, Ed Pritchard portrayed Demetrius as if nothing had changed, a problematical proposition when your fiancée turns out to be gay or bisexual, but the text offers no more guidance to our Demetrius than it does for Helena or Lydia. I would have expected all four of the lovers – especially during the taunting and fighting – to have had more fun with the newly hatched absurdities.
The cuts that Costa applied to the script may have shortened the mortals' onstage time more than the fairies', or maybe the extra juice from the hip-hop idiom just made the fairies more exciting and accessible. I'm sure that I've seen Midsummer productions where the mechanicals don't perform their Bergamask after their travesty of a tragedy, and I've also seen productions where the fairy king and queen don't return. Returning both of these to the final scene added to the sense of revelry, merriment, and magic. When the last huge exits went to King Oberon and Queen Titania instead of the three newly wedded Athenian couples, the sudden hush when Puck was left all alone on stage was all the more poignant and dramatic. After such an unusual, energetic staging, Merema had no difficulty at all in coaxing us to give her our hands.
A Midsummer Night's Dream continues through Sunday, October 30. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.