A romantic comedy on a Shakespearean scale
July 5, 2005
Noting the 12-foot-tall fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania that reign over the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Jef Hall-Flavin says, “Shakespeare didn’t write small plays. So we don’t do small productions.””A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with its romance and goblins, potions and play-within-a-play, can be seen as Shakespeare at his lightest – his version of romantic comedy. The language of the early-era Shakespeare play is relatively accessible, not nearly as dense, says Hall-Flavin, as later works like “The Tempest,” when Shakespeare became intentionally complicated. The plot is predictable. In Shakespeare Theatre’s production, not only do people fly, but so does the furniture. “It seems like a trifling play about lovers and fairies,” said Hall-Flavin, who served as assistant director of the production when it opened in Washington, D.C., in 2003 and directs the current run in Aspen. (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opens at the Aspen District Theatre tonight and runs through Sunday as part of the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Ideas Festival.)But has supernatural romantic comedy ever covered such a huge thematic range and with such complexity and enduring appeal? “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” may lack murders, epic wars and insidious treachery, but it contains the stuff of life: love and marriage, dreams and awakenings. And at the core of the comedy is one of the most prevalent and basic realities of human existence: change.
In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the setting shifts from the city of Athens to the natural splendor of the nearby woods, and day gives way to night – and both changes are accompanied by profound differences of language and atmosphere. The weaver/actor Nick Bottom, for example, is physically transfigured, from a man into a beast. But the most momentous changes regard romance. As Robin “Puck” Goodfellow sprinkles his magic nectar among the young quartet of Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander, love turns into hate, and lovers are replaced by other lovers. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” features more changes in romantic alliances than a season of reality TV.”We don’t know why we fall in love,” said Hall-Flavin, who has been assistant director for five productions in his two years with the Shakespeare Theatre, which is making one of its very rare appearances outside of its Washington, D.C., home. “We don’t know how the power of love transforms us or why. But it does. It’s a very powerful thing. The power of love is mysterious and life-changing.”Nearly as potent a force in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is art. Hall-Flavin marvels at the way Bottom and his fellow tradesmen exchange their usual trades to become a sort of community theater troupe in the woods, the action on stage thus mirroring the experience of the actual audience. And when Bottom is returned to his normal self, he uses song as a means to express and comprehend what he has been through.”The only way he can cope with what has happened is through art,” Hall-Flavin said. “His response is: ‘I don’t know what just happened, but the only way I can respond is to write a ballad.'”
To Hall-Flavin, audiences use theater in much the same way that Bottom used song: to shake themselves up and ultimately understand themselves better.”The woods transforms everyone who comes into it,” he observed. “That’s very universal. We all go away to find ourselves. In the same way we take a vacation from our real lives to discover something new about ourselves, we go to a play to hold up a mirror to our lives.”We humans resort to art to respond to things we don’t understand. That’s what makes this play great. And Shakespeare knew that.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’Where: Aspen District TheatreWhen: Wednesday through Saturday, 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m.How: Tickets are available through the Wheeler Opera House box office, 920-5770, or at http://www.wheeleroperahouse.com