Arts theater review

Shakespeare, updated

ArtsEmerson hosts a hilarious, beautifully choreographed staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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Kyle Lima, Naomi Cranston, Alex Felton, and Akiya Henry in ArtsEmerson’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream


A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Directed by Tom Morris

Performed by Bristol Old Vic in association with Handspring Puppet Company

Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre

March 6 – 15

I loathe Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays are generally over-performed, and I’ve seen far too many productions where actors speak Shakespeare’s archaic words in strange phrasings, making the plays inaccessible. Additionally, the plays generally lack interesting female characters and are often misogynistic. To say the least, I expected to be bored by A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

But I was wrong. ArtsEmerson’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is hands down one of the best plays I have ever seen.

The comedic tale focuses on the mismatched love quadrilateral between four youths, Athens, Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius. While Hermia and Lysander love each other, Hermia’s father wants her to marry Demetrius. However, Helena loves Demetrius, who does not reciprocate her affections. Meanwhile, Oberon, the King of the Fairies, is estranged from Titania, Queen of the Fairies, because she will not give him her Indian changeling. Oberon sends his jester, Robin Goodfellow/Puck, to punish Titania by making her fall in love with a donkey, and fix the love problems of the Athenian youth.

But the simple Puck confuses Lysander and Demetrius, causing both to fall in love with Helena and hilariously inverting the original problem.

The play innovatively uses puppets to dramatize the supernatural aspects of the play. Both Titania and Oberon are portrayed by actors using large, wooden heads held high, while Oberon also has a large mechanical hand. Puck’s part was spoken by three actors, and his puppet was built out of a hodgepodge of gardening implements, including a basket and rake.

At first, I was disconcerted by the strange amalgamation of implements used to create Puck, but as the play progressed, I appreciated the unique choreography of his movements. The puppets used to portray Oberon and Titania added to the detached regality of their characters. It seemed apt for the King and Queen of the Fairies to be hard-faced creatures with concerns far above those of the common people.

Of course, I should not have been surprised by the use of puppets. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was produced by a collaboration of Bristol Old Vic and the Handspring Puppet Company. Their most recent collaboration was War Horse, which went on to win the Tony Award for Best Play and inspired the Oscar-nominated film of the same name. While War Horse featured many more puppets, A Midsummer Night’s Dream strategically deployed the puppets in roles where they would have the most interesting effect.

The choreography of the play adds another dimension to the story. As Titania and Oberon argue about the fate of the Indian changeling, other actors portray rays emanating from Titania’s brow. By turns, the rays telegraph Titania’s anger, pride, and power. Instead of listening intently to their complicated dialogue, I could let rays’ beautiful movements wash over me and reveal the essential emotions of their words.

Of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also a very funny play. While the intricate monologues include many witty phrases, the cast incorporates many hilarious sight gags. The most notable was a character’s transformation into a donkey, where he was played by a literal, well, ass. The staging of the play was absolutely amazing, as the cast brought in enough slapstick comedy to have me laughing almost continually.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is truly a fantastic play. Shakespeare’s antiquated words are not modified, for the benefit of Shakespeare purists, but the inspired choreography of the play makes it much funnier and accessible to all. If you want to laugh at the absurdity of life, I strongly recommend you see this production.