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Shakespeare & Beyond

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Insights from Folger Theatre dramaturg Michele Osherow

actors performing a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream
actors performing a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream
actors performing a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream

Bottom (Jacob Ming-Trent, left), Snout (Brit Herring), and Flute (John Floyd, right) perform their version of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in Folger Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National Building Museum. (Pictured top, l to r: Renea S. Brown and Bryan Barbarin, Nubia M. Monks and Rotimi Agbabiaka, Lilli Hokama and Hunter Ringsmith.) Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

“Nowhere does Shakespeare attend more to theatrical enterprise and potential than in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” writes Michele Osherow, Folger Theatre’s resident dramaturg.It makes the play irresistible to those who practice theatre and to those who crave its incomparable pleasures.”

In this playbill excerpt from Folger Theatre’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Osherow explores the theatrical emphasis at the heart of director Victor Malana Maog’s vision. Midsummer is onstage through August 28 as part of The Playhouse at the National Building Museum.

“Shakespeare’s plays regularly demonstrate and explore the possibilities of art. Art is often central to his plots: a statue enables resurrection; music of the spheres reunites the estranged; embroidered linen invites treachery. But it is the practice and potential of theatrical art that Shakespeare most often references, renders and interrogates in his work. His characters self-consciously exploit theatrical devices to test, charm, condemn, delight, deceive, outwit, abuse or amaze those around them. Theatre itself is a subject in his plays, and a means, says Director Victor Malana Maog, “to make the impossible possible.” Nowhere does Shakespeare attend more to theatrical enterprise and potential than in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It makes the play irresistible to those who practice theatre and to those who crave its incomparable pleasures.

Maog’s sleek adaptation brings the play’s theatrical emphasis front and center. We open with a troupe of amateur actors intent on staging a play. These “rude mechanicals” (3.2) provide a crash-course on theatrical process: casting, scheduling, script development, technical considerations, and issues surrounding textual interpretation and audience. Starting the play in the theatrical world underscores the freedoms within it. Boundaries are instinctively crossed by these artists. In preparing their performance, they are not limited by gender, education, class– or even by species, matter or physics. Theatre is the great equalizer. Before the play’s end, a weaver’s impromptu song will result in his being courted by a fairy “of no common rate” who offers to elevate him similarly (3.1). Indeed, all the working-class mechanicals will effectively displace Athens’ elite; the Duke, his Duchess, lords and ladies will be relegated to the periphery while actors take center court. Note, too, that unlike most comedies (spoiler alert), Midsummer’s ultimate goal is not a set of marriages but rather the performance of a play.

Boundaries crossed by artists are just the start. The play’s young lovers will break literal, social and metaphorical boundaries, too. They venture beyond city limits into dark woods to evade Athenian law. In the world controlled by fairies, new rules apply. Female desire is privileged there, and consequences come from denying it: consider that Hermia’s chaste choice to sleep apart from her beloved leads Puck to mistake Lysander for Demetrius. And the ruler of the fairy kingdom is immediately sympathetic to Helena’s plight, at whatever cost to Demetrius.

Love is something over which fairies have sway. Their other magical exploits are more familiar, echoing theatrical practices introduced by Peter Quince’s company. Helena, for example, enters the play wishing she was Hermia; once in the woods, she is essentially re-cast in that role when the male lovers direct their attentions exclusively toward her. Both Peter and Puck take charge of others’ entrances and exits, and both actors and fairies are keen on performance. Puck is tickled pink to stumble across the “hempen homespuns'” rehearsal, and proclaims his willingness to “be an auditor/An actor too” (3.1). The similarities between the enchanted worlds of fairies and theatres is bolstered in this production through double-casting (a practice Peter Quince disparages, but effective here). Ultimately, it is Bottom who cements the magical connection between theatrical and supernatural worlds by resolving that his fairy ‘dream’ is a story best fit for the stage. Both worlds are sites of transformation.

In keeping with the play’s splendid notions of what theatre does and can do, our adaptation pushes against some boundaries still conspicuous within this work. Those of you familiar with Midsummer will recognize that at the close of Oberon and Titania’s first encounter we swap the two roles, enabling the Fairy Queen to have the upper hand, keep close her changeling, and steer Oberon’s desire in directions unforeseen. With Titania at the helm, those lost within the wood—and the play itself—benefit from her influence. We also chose to flag assumptions made about these characters’ identities and appearances. And we elected to explore options other than shame for the lovefest in the fairy bower, transforming that union from a “vile thing” (2.2) to a delicious, unexpected thrill.

We’ve taken some liberties; but this, too, is a theatrical practice modeled in Midsummer. In truth, liberations of all sorts informed this production, from our immense and gorgeous playhouse in the National Building Museum, to the band of theatre artists joining us for the first time, to the new audiences we hope to discover– and then there’s the genuine joy (freedom!) of returning to the theatre, together. Because, as Midsummer announces outright, when our “minds transfigured so together / More witnesseth than fancy’s images / And grows to something of great constancy,” the result is “strange and admirable” (5.1).”