By Matthew Munroe
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of my favorite Shakespearean comedies, mostly because it contains, in my opinion, two of Shakespeare’s funniest scenes: the lovers’ quarrel in Act III, Scene ii and the mechanicals’ play in Act V, Scene i. However, because the play’s central conflict includes fairies meddling in the lives of young lovers and a group of inept manual laborers (the mechanicals) trying to stage a play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has historically been viewed as one of Shakespeare’s most frivolous plays. As a result, the script was often drastically edited to fit the whims and fancies of the historical era in which it was performed.
During the Enlightenment, Midsummer was hardly ever produced, and when it was, it was reduced to a comedic interlude that featured solely the mechanicals. In these productions, the fairies and lovers were completely cut. Then, during the Romantic era the fairies were used as an excuse to make the play a vehicle for dazzling spectacle, a spectacle that, in one production, even included live rabbits hopping across the stage.
However, in the early 20th century the play came into its own, with Shakespeare’s text fully restored, a result of the discovery of more detailed information about Elizabethan theatre that led producers to stage his plays as they would have been performed in Shakespeare’s time. In the second half of the 20th century, productions began to explore deeper and more serious themes in the play, such as Peter Brook’s production in 1970 that saw the fairy world as a reflection of the unfettered dark impulses of our own. And now, IU Summer Theatre is tackling this complex comedy, and it is not shying away from the show’s darker undertones.
In IU Summer Theatre’s production, these dark undertones are fully present from the moment the lights come up and are not pushed aside in favor of the light and fun scenes in the forest that make up most of the play. In Act I, Scene i Theseus is planning his wedding to Hippolyta, which sounds wonderful and happy until you remember that Theseus has just defeated Hippolyta in battle and that she is his prisoner of war. Chronologically, these events occur before the play starts, so Shakespeare merely refers to them, which means that it is easy to forget about them, which I have certainly done before but which this production does not.
Second, when Egeus enters the scene, he wants his own daughter put to death because she refuses to marry the man he wants her to marry, which is his right according to Athenian law. Even though I had read and seen the play before watching this production in rehearsal, I had not fully understood the terrible implications of Egeus’ demand until now. I had always glossed over it, expecting the opening scene to be as light and fun as the scenes in the forest that followed it. But in this production, the opening scene is intense, allowing the audience to fully grasp the gravity of the situation.
Of course, the forest scenes are still hilarious—it is hard for them not to be—but now they serve as a contrast to the intense opening. Moreover, this dark first scene allows the playfulness of the forest scenes to have a purpose, and not to seem merely frivolous, as it has historically been viewed. Director Jonathan Michaelsen described this purpose to the cast, saying, “We set up this really strong patriarchal world [in Act I, Scene i], and I’m trying to set it up so that by the end, it’s been put aright and is more equal.” The magical forest now serves a transformative purpose that empowers the female characters, giving them more independence than they had in the opening scene.
This effect of the forest on the characters is enhanced by the fact that the dark undertones occasionally return, showing how the two worlds are related. The Fairy King and Queen, Oberon and Titania, are in the midst of an argument when we meet them. In IU Summer Theatre’s production, their meeting is expanded beyond Shakespeare’s text to include a choreographed confrontation between their fairy trains set to drum music. In fact, the entire play includes an original drum score, composed by Sam Bryson, a rising junior in the Jacobs School of Music, that serves to keep the tension introduced in Act I, Scene i boiling just underneath the surface throughout the play, and allowing the pay-off of seeing how the forest has transformed the characters to feel earned.
IU Summer Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream certainly has a lot to offer. It maintains the comedy and frivolity that have made the show famous and entertaining for centuries of viewers, while also acknowledging the fact that all is not fun and games in this world Shakespeare has created. I have immensely enjoyed watching this show in rehearsal, and I cannot wait to see it in production!