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A Requiem for a Hot Summer's Dream - Part One

Friday, July 4, 2008 Leave a Comment

Well...it's over. As ever, the closing of a show is both a relief (free nights!) and a loss, and that is doubly so for me with this production. It was an overwhelming process, with the play continually opening up to reveal new opportunities and challenges. As I wrote in my director's statement in the program:

"All the characters in this wood have been torn in some way, and in this play of weavers (magical and otherwise), some are mended, and most are forgiven. And I am torn, too, for all the moments in the play I could not find a way, or time, to report. The play has streaked our eyes with Love, and we are chasing it through the woods, but it will not stay for us. And I know now Midsummer isn't done so often because it is easy, but because it is so hard. We got some of it, our own unique little thread of the pattern. I know you can never get all of this dream. I know it hath no bottom. And if you pardon that, we will mend."

I wrote that a few days before we opened, and it feels even more true a few weeks after we closed. I still dream of the play, and I haven't found a way to let go of it yet. What follows is an attempt to let the play go by sharing that little thread we found.

When I was working on the play before production, it was hard to find a working manual of the play. There was much theoretical opinion, but little record of how all the innumerable challenges and obstacles of the play had been and could be solved. The exception was Michael Pennington' User's Guide, which gave much useful advice even as it relegated the play to a lesser of Shakespeare's comedies; a relegation I am unwilling to make.

So here is my own User's Guide of the play, for whoever happens to find it. Maybe the discoveries and mistakes we made can aid another company in their own journey through A Midsummer Night's Dream.

How to Begin
(photo: Shalin Scupham)
Do you begin with Theseus' first words? Or do you frame the play, pairing some kind of Prologue against Puck's famous Epilogue? We chose two frames - the first could be called the Summoning of the Shadows. Oberon stands in light, his shadow breaking towards the audience, as Puck appears from underneath his cape. Puck walks towards the audience, eventually revealing the flower that will become the Love-In-Idleness. As Puck walks, the actors of the play cross past foot lights on either side of the house, their shadows flickering against the back wall. As they walk past the corners of the audience, they look as if they are carrying a secret that the audience may or may not be ready for. Puck extends the flower to someone in the first row, but before the audience member can grab it, a soldier grabs one of the poles symmetrically placed to match the columns in the West End and slams it rhythmically against the floor.
(photo: Shalin Scupham)
What did this accomplish? Most simply, it was a gateway into a different world. All of the above was done in silence, and because this production used no sign designer, that silence before the torrent of words and sounds to follow was an effective transition. Additionally, it established our focus on Oberon and Puck's relationship, our use of shadows, and linked the offering of the Love-In-Idleness to the Puck's spell in the Epilogue.
(photo: Shalin Scupham)
The War: As Michael Swarz (Moth, but in this moment a soldier) began pounding the PVC pipe against the floor, other soldiers joined suit, moving the symmetrical PVC pre-set location to a wide hallway, angled down stage right. Our only other set pieces besides the 6 different pipes and bases were 1 wide circle unit 3 feet off the ground, 2 narrow circle units 2 feet off the ground, and 1 medium circle unit 1 foot off the ground. From these poles and circles, all of our many looks were created - one of the design elements I was most proud of (thank you Will Lowry!)
But I was talking about The War. How present do you make the most recent war between the Athenians and Amazons? Our amazing dramaturg Ingrid Nordstrom and I spent a great deal of time researching the 'history' of Hippolyta and Theseus, with much of it contradictory but all of it rich; and from those sources and through conversation with actors Aaron Michael Zook and Frederique Nahmani, we came up with the following story:
Theseus met the Amazon Queen when his kinsman, Hercules, was winning Hippolyta's girdle. Hippolyta later traveled with Hercules (and were probably lovers) all throughout Greece, at which time Theseus was the lover of Hippolyta's sister, Antiope. However, after Hercules left, Theseus fell madly in love with Hippolyta, and kidnapped her by force. The Amazons followed, and a war was fought between the two countries. In the final battle, Hippolyta nearly escaped, and Theseus wounded her badly. She has been his captive for some time now, and with the Amazons crushed, she has little choice but to accept his will or die.
(photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum)
So how did we tell that complex story simply? As the soldiers created Theseus' palace, they pounded in a war-like rhythm as Philostrate forced Hippolyta into the down right corner. As Theseus rose to his throne, created by all the circle units, Hippolyta refused to put on a dress and stood there in her warrior garb, bandages still covering where Theseus wounded her. As the pounding of the soldiers' spears grew deafening, and their shouts grew louder, and then all stops as Theseus says:
Now fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour Draws on apace:
Hippolyta, in a dangerous situation, can neither say no (she would be killed with this room of angry Athenians glaring at her) nor say yes; and it is no surprise that she likens the moon to a 'silver bow' aimed at their shotgun wedding.
Theseus, realizing he cannot win her love through force, says:
Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword, And won thy love, doing thee injuries: But I will wed thee in another key, With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.
Up until "wed thee in another key", Theseus spoke privately as possible to Hippolyta, almost gently, realizing all his military might couldn't win her love; but then Hippolyta thrusts the unwanted dress in his hands, rejecting his gentleness, and giving his final 'triumph' a violent, military feeling that made the soldiers pound their spears in anticipation of seeing their enemy Amazon humiliated.
Through these choices, we attempted to illuminate the difference between Theseus' behavior with Hippolyta (gentle, uncertain, genuine) and his more public behavior with everyone else (forceful and manipulative). We also tried to articulate Hippolyta's impossible choice: to marry a man who slaughtered her people, but through him, wield great power; or to die. This scene was the beginning of her discovering how much her free will could be given free reign if she goes through with marriage.
The Sharp Athenian Law
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum)
Yep...all those decisions in just one little page of text!
Keeping the military nature of Theseus' court running through the rest of the play, we chose to make Egeus and Demetrius soldiers in Theseus' Army. This clarifies the nature of all the relationships in exciting ways- if Demetrius has fought in a war with Egeus, then Egeus' preference for him seems less arbitrary. And if Egeus was a general in Theseus' army, then he must expect a ruling his favor.
One nice moment we found to deepen the relationship between Egeus and Thesues was when Theseus mitigates the sentence of death to that of a nunnery - in our production, Theseus makes sure this mitigation is acceptable to Egeus, making both men a little more human, and articulating the balance of power between a dictator and one of his most important vassals.
Either to die the death, or to abjure
For ever the society of men.

In an effort to further humanize Egeus, we created a back story that while Demetrius and Egeus were fighting in a war to save their country, Lysander was wooing Hermia; making the betrayal even more hurtful to them both, and casting Lysander in a more morally ambiguous light. We strengthened that ambiguity by having Lysander at first treating the court case almost flippantly, checking his watch when Theseus asks him to step forward, and gesturing innocently if one of the soldier's is the man Egeus is speaking of, forcing Egeues' 'thou, thou Lysander' in response, and giving his-
You have her father's love, Demetrius:
Let me have Hermia's: do you marry him.

-a truly scornful feeling to it.
We also slipped in a little humanizing comedy, with Egeus having brought Hermia's box of Lysander's gifts as evidence in the court, displaying each awful thing as if it were a drug before dumping all of it on the floor:
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum)
Prop designer Kelly O'Donnell did an amazing job of creating all the horrors in Egeus' list, though we didn't get to spend enough time to really mine this moment for all it was worth.
As the scene continues, the choices of how dark to make this first scene of an allegedly light hearted comedy keep coming. I'm not sure we struck the perfect balance, and this is one of the scenes that I wish we'd had more time with in rehearsal, to more deeply capture the terror of the law that has been swung into its unstoppable motion.
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum)
However, we did keep the tension between Hippolyta and Theseus alive in the room, as Theseus keeps trying to finish the judgement so he can deal with the more pressing matter of his troublesome nuptials; this allowed his frustration (strengthened by the reveal that he knew of Demetrius' doubl-dealing with Helena) to build towards the climax of:
I must confess, that I have heard so much, And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof: Bu being over-full of self-affairs, My mind did lose it. But Demetrius come, And come Egeus, you shall go with me, I have some private schooling for you both.
At this private schooling line, we had Theseus forcibly pull Egeus away from his daughter, helping with the always vexing question of why Egeues and Demetrius would leave Lysander and Hermia alone together. Here, it was Theseus' justifiable anger at being brought in as the arbiter of a domestic dispute.
(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum)
We even had Hippolyta run and stand in between Theseus and Hermia on:
(Which by no means we may extenuate)
To death, or to a vow of single life.

Come my Hippolyta, what cheer, my love?

Later, this choice of making Hippolyta a silent champion for Hermia against the patriarchal system that would leave her a nun or dead will bear fruit in Theses giving her the gift of the triple nuptial (but more on that anon).

Stay tuned for more as I try, little by little, to set down what I remember of this Dream of ours.

1 comments »

  • Matt A said:  

    This is great...thanks! Keep it coming!