“that which knitteth souls and prospers loves”: A Midwinter Dreame

Modular 1980 Christmas card, designed by C. Walter Hodges, for the Detroit Project.

This post inaugurates a new series here on Bite Thumbnails explicitly dedicated to the Portland-area first folio technique company, the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival (OPS Fest). As their new (and first) scholar-in-residence, I will be both charting their performances as well as observing their methods of rehearsal and production toward my own research on playing companies, early modern dramaturgy, and the repertory system. What better way that to start with my favorite, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—with a yuletide twist!

But first, what do we mean by “first folio technique”? There is a school of thought that the First Folio – the first collated copy of works by William Shakespeare published in 1623 – contains clues as to how lines might be delivered. Such clues involve capitalization, use of punctuation, and spelling that many modern editors have taken to be typos or didn’t adhere to rhyming norms of the time. Some tricky factors include:

  • not all of the plays we associate with Shakespeare were in the first folio.
  • scholars and performers are still working out original pronunciation (example) and its effects on end rhyme.
  • the folios of the seventeenth century had their own editors, including Ralph Crane, who arguably “fixed” as many of the typological elements as modern editors. Quartos, the earlier, single-text printing of plays, may be actually closer to the original performances than the folios, but often have multiple competing versions of plays for a number of reasons (playing companies, printers, pirates, et cetera).

While acknowledging these and other elements, first folio techniqueone of a number of original practices increasingly in use by companies like Shakespeare’s Globe in London and the American Shakespeare Centermakes a Shakespearean play sing off the page for actors and audiences in ways totally unlike other approaches.

OPS Fest’s performance of A Midwinter Night’s Dream, that added sugar plum to a play of fairies for a one-night-only winter solstice event, highlights what stands out about their approach. (In a similar way, A Muppet Christmas Carol playfully highlights what we have to gain from omniscient narration in a ghost story.) The production is their only one during the rainy season, with slightly modified text and performed indoors at Portland Metro Arts. For me, the seasonal setting brought together two crucial concerns of the play: festive time and the first folio.

The lovers (from left: Kaia Maarja Hillier, Colin Kane, Alec Lugo, Jessica Hirschhorn) try to sort out their muddled memories.

Midsummer was first performed to celebrate a wedding in a noble house in the mid-1590s. It is a play about and for festive time. According to scholar Erika Lin,

In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, holidays were often celebrated with dancing, music, athletic combat, informal roleplaying, and scripted drama. In the professional theatres, however, these same activities functioned not as communal rituals but as commodified entertainments.

With festive time in mind, Midsummer seems particularly ripe for revision as as Midwinter entertainment. Titania (Isabella Buckner) and Oberon (David Bellis-Squires) became Susan and Nicholas Claus. Both campaign to the audience over who should keep the changeling boy with chocolate coins. The characters are citizens of Whoville rather than Athens. They eat and slowly disappear oversized candy canes over the course of the production. Some lines were cleverly modified (maintaining meter), such as:

  • “I have forsworn thy sled and company.”
  • “Not for thy whole toy factory!”
  • “Weeps every little snowflake.”
  • “Mrs. Clause, with a reindeer, is in love!”
  • Love-in-Idleness is a “little holly (rather than ‘western’) flower”
  • “Swifter than an icicle from the snow queen’s bow!”
  • “The Duke is come from the Nativity scene with two or three lords and ladies more!”

There was also unchanged text that simply rung differently in my ears given the holiday context. I frequently assign a devising essay in my theatre classes looking for just such things that can make an old text seem exigent again:

  • “How low am I, thou painted maypole?”
  • “All in jollity!”
  • “my heart unto yours is knit

The last, spoken by Lysander (Colin Kane), was impeded by an oversized green scarf wrapped around his face in something mimicking Randy from The Christmas Story.

Simultaneously inventive and hooked into the holiday (holy and festive) time of “its parent and original” was the troupe’s use of a prompter (Keith Cable) as an actual character on stage. Ostensibly, the prompter is provided as a monitoring peer (he wears a referee’s jersey) to provide missed cues and lines. Part of the first folio technique is going without rehearsal and using “rolls,” the printed part with two iambs of cue lines, while on stage. Based on current scholarship, this is most likely how all first “trials” or performances were conducted. The applause they received determined whether or not the company would invest costumes and rehearsal time into the production. (Likewise, according to Tiffany Stern, prologues and epilogues are artifacts of first performances and weren’t used after the fact.) With a prompter, a new level of meta-commentary about what theatre is capable of (or good for) is made available to us. Some examples:

  • Peter Quince, played by artistic director Brian Allard, missed his first substitution of “Whoville” for “Athens.” When stopped and corrected by the prompter, he moaned “That’s a new change, they just voted it in.” Bottome (David C. Olson) chimed in, “make Whoville great again” in reference to the recent election.  (The only other election quip, also by Bottome: “Truth and honesty keep little company these days – since the electoral college.”) Quince was disgruntled by the use of Whoville every time afterward, sharing a running joke with the audience.
  • When Hermia (Kaia Maarja Hillier) awakes and realizes she has lost Lysander, she has also lost her place in the script. She turns to the prompter for consolation, crying and dragging on his sleeve, collapsing the character’s distress over her lost love with the actor’s distress over a missed cue. Later, when Hermia dropped a cuenot a sign of unpreparedness but rather an aesthetic of the troupethe prompter quickly filled her in. She responded, “You get me!”
  • In another brilliant moment capitalizing on a dropped line, Mrs. Claus turns to the prompter to ask if he has her line. Not having that part of the script, he shakes his had. Santa turns to her, “I have a Christmas gift for you Susan: I’ll give you your line!”

In these moments, the prompter was integrated into the world of the play. He was fully a part of the action, commenting on playmaking in the same spirit as the lovers comment on the theatre of the rude mechanicals.

A crew of patches: Starveling (Beth Yocam), This Dog My Dog (Max Lewis), Snug (Emilie Landmann), Quince (Brian Allard), Flute (Brian Burger), Snout (Michael Streeter), and the prompter (Keith Cable) all lean in to hear Bottome (David C. Olson) weave his tale.

From a properly critical standpoint, I also got out of the production the kind of thing I hope to get from any Shakespeare performance: to hear an interpretation of a line or two I hadn’t yet developed a clear grasp of yet. For this performance, I had always wondered what exactly does a “sucking dove” sound like? And why would Bottome suggest a gentle lion would make that sound? David C. Olson performed a “cooing” noise with a rolled-“R” sound that gave me a brilliant reference point for where lion and dove meet in a soundscape. That, and never had I quite put together that nearly all of the major plot movements in the play are motivated by sexual rejection: the amazon Hippolyta of Theseus, Hermia of Demetrius, Titania of Oberon, and Demetrius of Helena. “Lovers, make moan” indeed!

My favorite moment, the moment that brought together the festive spirit of the nuptials for which the play was envisioned and holiday-making of Christmastime, was one you couldn’t have planned for. It seems all the more apropos considering OPS Fest lets you see the script. Starveling (Beth Yocam) was costumed as the Grinch, and her son (Max Lewis) played an implied part, This Dog My Dog, reminiscent of Dr. Seuss. Quite a little guy, he was kept near mom with a toddler harness, and when barking on cue, was rewarded with apples from Quince and the prompter. He stole the show not once but twice. First, in the wooded rehearsal, when Thisbe dies and falls to the ground in a tragic moment verging into real pathos, from the sidelines This Dog My Dog jumped out and suddenly mimicked the fall to great cheers and applause. Later, when in their performance before the duke and duchess, Starveling has her lines about moonshine and her doggy thornbush. Thisbe enters, to be scared away by the lion, and so too does Starveling run off. About to leave the stage with This Dog My Dog, he sees Thisbe’s mantle thrown in the air, and completely changes course for it exactly as a real dog or child might do!

At Bottome (David C. Olson) makes his finale, the lanthorn moon (Beth Yocam) and thornbush (Max Lewis) are an unexpectedly divided front.

While an exception to a number of their normal performance conditions and practices, A Midwinter Night’s Dreame brought together the potentials of original practices and festive time to make meaning. In six months, at the midsummer solstice, their full summer season will open, out-of-doors on a midnight hill, with A Midsummer Night’s Dreame, free to the public. Right about then I think we shall all need a dose of festive time again.

Modular 1980 Christmas card, designed by C. Walter Hodges, for the Detroit Project.

  • While this was a one-night only performance, it marks six months to the day of the opening of the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival (OPS Fest) season on midsummer’s day. Mark your calendars for 21 June 2017.
  • More photos of this performance are available via this gallery post.

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