Shakespeare, Surprise, & Other Drugs

And in the wood, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie,
Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet,
There my Lysander and myself shall meet
— Hermia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1.1

Walking into the Armory Theatre last night, home of Portland Center Stage, everything except for the play was unknown. I had not yet seen an Anonymous Theatre Company production, which in earlier years was by special invite. A regular fixture in the Portland theatre calendar, their one-night-a-year productions advertise only the director(s) and the play title, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The cast isn’t known to us, or even to one another. Last night, the night of the show, was the first they saw the stage, said these words in public, formed these relationships within the world of the play. The actors were come in amongst us, having taken their seats in the audience to wait out their cue—one even so long as act five. In a play about unexpected transformations, the added level of secrecy and coordinated reveals left me wondering to what extent I rely on the affect of surprise to buoy me through a theatrical experience.

Titania (Joellen Sweeney) falls in love with an ass, Bottom (Jessica Tidd).

The bubble and froth of the pre-show suspense was one of the cleverer set-ups I’ve encountered for Shakespeare, where the Green Show typically rules the roost. Working in this model since 2002, it was only the second attempt the company has made at Shakespeare, having done Macbeth in 2009. The audience was as full of folks from the theatre profession as non-thespians, giving one the sense that anyone could be about to perform—like a good game of Mafia. Playgoers teased one another, “what if you’re in the show!” Overhearing these conversations and greeting my own friends from the scene, I wondered if this was an extrapolation of the sensation a regular, returner playgoer gets when opening a program for the first time. There is that delight of quick remembering of previous productions you might have seen the actors in, how you felt about that performance, and the immediate guesses one makes about what kind of parts in this play would be with or against type for them. Rather than have that psychological opportunity with a half dozen or so performers, Anonymous has found a way to you entertain those options for a room fitting nearly five hundred.

The pre-show notes were equally delightful. The main director, one of three, welcomed us, asked for donations, and then gave notes to all of us as it was the only way to do so without revealing the cast prematurely. Most of them were about the best wings for entrances, for what moments the blocking markers indicated, and which side of the bower had the wheel lock to secure Titania’s sleeping quarters. Unlike previous Anonymous productions, the directing efforts were divided in three: one taking just the mechanicals, one the fairies, and one the Athenians. They did not rehearse together in these small groups, but rather one-on-one with their respective director. While such a division of labor makes economic sense and produced a hilarious note—”For the Athenians, there are sticks and twigs in the Whole Foods bag”—it fractured the production irrecoverably.

The first words said are by Theseus. When those words were spoken by a woman (Diane Kondrat), the audience broke out into massive applause. It’s a perfect example of Linda Hutcheon’s argument about adaptation, which I think usefully extends to classical theatre, wherein part of the pleasure of seeing a play you already know “comes simply from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise” (A Theory of Adaptation 4). Midsummer is a perennial favorite of Shakespeare festivals, high school and college theatre departments, and new or struggling theatre companies who need a quick cash-flow injection. It is very likely most of the audience knew at least some parts of the story, so this immediate variation both rewards playgoers in-the-know by being able to identify what was original and what was a change, and provides them a new way to look at a play they thought they knew. I would be remiss if I didn’t entertain the thought that it validated the current wave of overt Feminism in the US in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

But yet an union in partition

Alas, from here, there were few surprises. Thinking on it this morning with my partner, who also attended, we realized we enjoyed the event as an activity, but had a hard time with it as a play. As a Shakespearean scholar, I want productions that break all the rules, find new and exciting venues for these texts, and undermine the cultural status society has given “the Bard.” It literally makes my job easier. The more variations I get to see, the greater number of examples of polysemy I have in my pocket to bring to my students, helps me encourage creative new readings of their own.

But as in Shakespeare, Jazz, and Baseball, one can’t break the rules—or at least steal a base—until you first know how the game is played. There were three main technical issues, outside the ideological and experimental concerns of the production, that produced systemic issues and confusion.

  1. Verse. This is a wide-spread problem, from the community theatre production in the firehouse to Broadway: American actors are not widely trained in how to use verse. From the seats it would seem that actors are advised to use their own cadences and map them on to the metre (not meter, which is a form of physical and not sonic measurement). Midsummer is not only primarily in iambic pentametre, but chockablock full of stacked couplets in places other than at the ends of scenes or speeches. It is a lovers’ play, and uses the ornamented, elevated diction associated with love to convey the scale and scope of emotions otherwise inexpressible. Verse is a tool in these plays meant to support actors, to give them cues as to pronunciation, body movement, and emphasis precisely because Renaissance players worked with very little rehearsal (no group rehearsal) and no directors. Whatever the reason in this case, actors systemically didn’t know who they were talking to, were unsure as to where to direct action, and mispronounced a number of common words (e.g., “revenue,” “bodies,” and “Parker” rather than Peter Quince). Perhaps relatedly, there were six calls for a forgotten lines.
  2. Bifurcated vision. The three directors weren’t directing parts of the same play. This would be fine if they were simply working with the text. Following contemporary theatre practices, however, each brought a vision or added message to place on top of the text. This is typical of staged Shakespeare, but was particularly difficult to follow when three different interests were vying for attention and control of tone: the mechanicals were focused on a highly exaggerated slapstick physical comedy, the Athenians were invested in not just a queer but explicitly lesbian commentary, and the fairies a kind of unheimlich estranging metatheatre. All of these are interesting approaches that build on aspects made available by the text. Together, they made for a confusing and uncomfortable experience. As a playgoer, I felt I was being constantly cued in one direction with one set of concerns and expectations, that were then immediately undermined in the next moment.
  3. Traditional choices. This is perhaps an unfair critique, but nearly all of the choices made (and not made) when it came to casting, staging, and character were very conservative, aligning with the last fifty years or so of performance history of this play. For example,
    • Hippolyta is an Amazon, an elite warrior recently captured and being forced into marriage with Theseus. It is in the dialogue that they are in conflict for the whole of the play—this is their arc. I have yet to see this onstage. Hippolyta is always in a dress; she and Theseus are usually boiling over with desire for one another. Not only at odds with the text they must say, it also gives these characters no place to go in terms of developing a rapport. The final dumb show brings them on to common ground when they observe a moving performance of Thisbe mourning for her warrior love. As two elite warriors, this is an emotion both Hippolyta and Theseus understand, hope for, and share with one another. Here as elsewhere, the Amazon is a throw-away lust-bucket with no interiority or development. And unnecessarily in a dress.
    • Likewise Puck (and Ariel from The Tempest) was played here by/as a woman in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) vein. As a satyr, Puck is a half-human figure who should, by rights, be the lustiest figure in the play. In the Renaissance, satyr dances often included the equivalent of enormous red strap-on phalli as part of the costume. (Also true in the medieval English period as well as in Classical Rome, from whence it came.) Additionally, our word “satire” comes from “satyr,” as these figures serve to critique the humans in the world of the play and/or those playgoers who have come to brush against such wantonness. Here using the MPDG trope, all of the potential for critique of the humans (“What fools these mortals be!”) disappears. By MPDG I mean a stunningly attractive young woman—usually with a touch of wild hair dye—placed in the story to give new meaning to the soulful, brooding male protagonist’s (read: Oberon) life. Full of wacky quirks and childlike playfulness, she’s inexplicably obsessed with or loyal to the male lead, and sometimes is a second love in order to break the character out of mourning his first. As an MPDG, Puck serves to furnish the pranks while Oberon is in conflict with Titania over loosing his mistress, Hippolyta, to help him realize his return to his lawful wife. So while the choice seems radical on the surface, it ultimately serves a conservative end: the quirky woman is only a vehicle to return the man to his procreative and legally-approved spouse.

Systemic throughout the production and in need of commendation, however, is the casting. Diversity in casting is a real problem in Portland—from the community theatres to the big-budget venues. Here, there were people of color from a range of communities as well as queer and gender-nonconforming folks. Integrated throughout, no group seem tokenized or overtly politicized by way of casting. It looked like in this secretive process, actors from non-privileged demographics were getting work comparable to those from privileged groups. It wasn’t perfect in its politics: the lesser-desired of the two available maidens was played by a Black actor (Tyharra Cozier), and the lesser-than-femme Flute (Cynthia Shur Petts) has her gender performance mocked and corrected throughout rather than validated. (Had it been validated, that would be in line with other lesbian relationships in the production—albeit performed by conventionally femme women.) But this is a work in progress, and I couldn’t have been happier for the diversity.

I did want to mention two other significant nuances to the casting. First, as the audience was full of local theatre folks, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to note some wasted talent onstage. At her first entrance, I was elated that Barbie Wu (recently of the award-winning Magellanica) was cast as Puck…only to find she was actually Cobweb. Likewise, Joellen Sweeney, who turned in a thoughtful performance in PETE’s Uncle Vanya last year, seemed misplaced as Titania.  Of Ted Rooney, a memorable Lincoln in ART’s A Civil War Christmas, I longed for more stage time. What an unexpected Puck he might have made.

Second, it needs be said that the backbone of the production was made up of actors who routinely do this one-night-only-no-rehearsal-Shakespeare every weekend all summer long: current and previous company members of the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival (OPS Fest). Trained in improv alongside what to do with verse, it is no surprise that Amy Driesler, Nikolas Hoback, Alec Lugo, and Tish Maskell were the most grounded performers. They knew what to do with the text when they didn’t know who else they were playing with, as well as how to manage the adrenaline of such an experience that kicks into high-gear instincts to send-up every line. So while Anonymous Theatre Company is doing something unique when it comes to any other kind of period play, Portland has routine, free, and easy access to such Shakespeare performances every weekend of the summer in a variety of metro parks. Regular readers know I am the first to admit being affiliated with OPS Fest; suffice it to say, I am not sure last night’s production would have hung together—especially in the case of Driesler and Lugo—without them.

Wall (Vana O’Brien) presents her chink, watched on, from left, by Hippolyta (Cecily Overman), Theseus (Diane Kondrat), the band, and Helena (Tyharra Cozier).

Come to my natural taste

Where does surprise come from? In such a setting, easy sources are from comedy—textual jokes, unexpected casting, and bodily slapstick. Surprise can also come from sincere moments, which the playtext makes widely available even if not capitalized upon. Last night, there were two. The first was when Demetrius (Lugo) has to explain why he is no longer in love with Hermia and has returned to Helena, “as in health, come to my natural taste.” He is the only one left under the influence of the love drug, and so this speech at the end of act four is a hard sell: how are we to believe that this guy, who earlier deployed a thinly-veiled threat of rape, has been properly medicated, will remain so, and that this is in fact a good outcome for his beloved? Lugo was able to capture the moment of calm, shifting from speaking to his lords over to Helena (and never to us), dropping his pitch, and slowly increasing his cadence to convey sincerity and uncertainty as to whether he would be accepted. In so doing, he made clear the real and relatable stakes of being rejected forever for an earlier misstep. That calm from the manic drugged lover, and her acceptance, are both unexpected surprises.

The other moment of sincerity was Thisbe’s (Petts) suicide after finding her love, Pyramus (Jessica Tidd), dead in the dumb show. As discussed earlier, this is designed as a transformative moment of commonality between Hippolyta and Theseus, as well as a shock to audiences who have watched Flute struggle in rehearsals throughout the play. The worst actor becomes the best when the trappings are cast off (as Sam Rockwell literalizes in the 1999 film version). The moment of calm focus was nearly derailed by Theseus (Diane Kondrat), who started fanning and nearly interrupted Thisbe a she was trying to take control of the tone of the moment. While there are literal transformations in the play, such as Bottom being given the head of an ass, this crucial turn by Flute is the more inspiring moment, effecting the psychologically transformative, unifying power of theatre.

I confess I am enthralled by the secretive nature of the process behind Anonymous Theatre Company’s work, and am very eager to see how it works for, say, a Harold Pinter play. The experience certainly illuminated the ways in which surprise and reveal are key functions of the contemporary playgoing experience. Due to the lack of technical proficiency employed here specifically necessary for staging Renaissance texts, the production seems to have presumed the feature of surprise would pick up the slack. Certainly the secrecy seems to have promoted equitable casting. But it also produced very traditional performance choices, ran the risk of sacrificing those from a non-privileged position as much as uplifting them, and was, at times, down-right sloppy for the ticket price. It has left me thinking this morning about to what extent I might be addicted to “surprise” in my theatre-going experiences, and what kinds of theatrical experiences are simply not made available to audiences, lacking moments that punch us with adrenaline at the surprise of the known-unknown.

Anonymous performances are one-night-only, and so production members are released much later. You can see previous dramatis personae here. As of this writing:

DIRECTORS. Darius Pierce (Mechanicals), Elizabeth Young (Athenians), Lava Alapai (Fairies)
ASSISTANT DIRECTORS. Tamara Carroll, Beth Summers, Audrey O’Farrell
MUSICIANS. Amy Hakanson, Matthew Holmes, Alexandra Geffel
STAGE MANAGER. Carol Ann Wohlmut

THESEUS. Diane Kondrat
HIPPOLYTA. Cecily Overman
EGEUS. Mark Pierce
HERMIA. Ana Harvey
LYSANDER. Tish Maskell
HELENA. Tyharra Cozier
PHILOSTRATE. Tobias Andersen

QUINCE. Amy Driesler
BOTTOM. Jessica Tidd
SNUG. Melissa Whitney
SNOUT. Vana O’Brien
FLUTE. Cynthia Shur Petts

OBERON. Jim Vadala
TITANIA. Joellen Sweeney
PUCK. Claire Aldridege
PEASBLOSSOM. Hannah Wilson
COBWEB. Barbie Wu
MOTH. Julet Lindo
MUSTARDSEED. Nikolas Hoback

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