Shakespeare’s ‘Dream’ gets an Aspen makeover
August 18, 2009
ASPEN – As a history coach with the Aspen Historical Society, and writer and producer of the in-progress “A Briefly Complete History of Aspen,” Mike Monroney cares about history, respecting it and presenting it accurately.
But Monroney is also a theater guy – a former member of the Crystal Palace dinner theater cast, a director for Aspen Community Theatre and Theatre Aspen – and knows the history of the stage well enough to understand that, unlike history, it is OK to take liberties with stories, settings and language.
Even when it is the stories and words of William Shakespeare.
In the Hudson Reed Ensemble’s version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” opening Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. on Galena Plaza (adjacent to the Pitkin County Library), the story will be set in Aspen, rather than the original setting of Athens. The characters have been renamed: Puck is now Buck; Lysander is now Zander. Hippolyta, the Queen of Athens, has become Polly, the Queen of Amazon.com. Other characters have been tossed out altogether. There are bits of music from “Grease” and Burt Bacharach. There is some bicycle riding, some fly-fishing. Shakespeare’s enduring romantic fantasy about love, nature and magic has been whittled down to a family-friendly one hour.
“I’m certainly not a purist,” said Monroney, who directs the play and stars as Derriere – or, as he was known in Shakespeare’s version, Bottom. “I love Shakespeare’s plots, his writing. But everything he did was borrowed. He borrowed from history, from the Greek, the Romans – everyone who came before him, basically.”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” among Shakespeare’s most venerable works, was in fact a take-off on “The Knight’s Tale,” one of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer’s story featured Theseus, the Duke of Athens, who reappears as a central character in Shakespeare’s comedy.
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Monroney has left much intact, however, starting with Shakespeare’s language, which, apart from being edited for length, has been left intact. And the themes endure.
“The themes in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ are universal. The most prominent being that love’s true course never did run smooth – and who can’t relate to that?” said Monroney, who is making his debut as a director of Shakespeare.
Monroney has had other issues to grapple with outside the integrity of Shakespeare’s vision. One is the venue itself – a little-used outdoor plaza sandwiched between a library and a jail. This is the fourth year of the Shakespeare in the Park productions – and Monroney appeared in last summer’s “Much Ado About Nothing” – but there are odd components to performing in a public, open-air space that need to be addressed anew each year: noise, the spatial relationship to the audience, how the actors enter the stage.
Perhaps the biggest element to confront, though, was imposed by Shakespeare: What balance should be struck between fantasy and reality?
“The lovers go into the forest, a magical forest with magical characters,” said Monroney. “I had to grapple with the issue: Do we ground this in realism, or do we allow for the existence of the magic, the fantasy?”
In messing with Shakespeare’s vision, Monroney has a solid bottom-line defense: “I’m not the first,” he said. Adaptations of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” include Woody Allen’s 1982 film “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” about a group of New Yorkers taking retreat in the early 1900s countryside; and the 2002 production, “A Midsummer Night’s Rave.”
Monroney takes solace in the fact that he is attempting something that dates back before Shakespeare, possibly as far back as 2500 B.C. Egypt, when man first tried telling a story through actors. And whether there is an actual theater or an empty patch of ground, major dollars or tiny budgets, strict adherence to the original script or a dramatic reworking of it, he is calling on the same thing that all thespians have.
“There’s that line in ‘Shakespeare in Love’: Someone asks, ‘How does this come off?’ And Geoffrey Rush’s character says, two or three times, ‘It’s a mystery,'” said Monroney. “What it boils down to is we had a lot of limitations on budget, cast size and time. But we wanted to do Shakespeare.”