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“It’s possible that the most challenging design question in the Shakespeare canon is ‘What do fairies wear?’” claims director Ethan McSweeny.
“Shakespeare’s fairies have more in common with the ‘little people’ of Celtic tradition than they do the ones who flit around on gossamer wings,” he notes. “They seem to have specific rituals that must be completed. It’s their duty to make sure the seasons change, for example. But the rest of the time they’re playing tricks on each other and, of course, on humans.”
Fairies are just one element in a play that McSweeny compares to a three-ring circus. “You’ve got the world of the fairies, the world of the lovers, which includes the court of Athens, and then you have the Mechanicals, who are, themselves, attempting to put on a play.”
The challenge, according to McSweeny, is to create a theatrical universe that works for all three. “It’s a little like spinning plates—often a production manages to get one or two worlds spinning, but getting all three going at once is rarer. My hope—and I can’t guarantee that we’re going to succeed—is to make all three worlds function equally well in the environment of the production.”
It’s a tall order for a play that has some very famous incarnations. Most memorable—and still spoken of in theatrical circles—is the Peter Brook production that premiered with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970, then toured the world. Performed in a stark, white space, it featured trapeze perches for Titania and Oberon, and actual spinning plates, along with other circus paraphernalia.
“I’ve heard Michael Kahn say two things about that Midsummer Night’s Dream,” McSweeny notes. “First, that after seeing Brook’s production, he’ll never direct it himself. Second, that, after all the ink that’s been spilled deciphering that production, Michael thought the setting—that empty, white space—was actually an incarnation of the rehearsal hall.”
The idea of a rehearsal hall stuck with McSweeny. “It makes such perfect sense. It’s the creative space where we invent the production, often with little more than bits of colored tape on the floor and temporary props crafted by the stage management team. And there’s no doubt that this play is infused with theatricality from beginning to end. That was very influential when set designer Lee Savage and I started imagining an appropriate playing space.”
The duo’s vision evolved from an early image of an empty neoclassical room to arrive at a more fully-fledged abandoned theatre, a setting that offers a natural journey from reality to fantasy. Thus the Athenian scenes take place before the stage curtain, close to the audience’s own world. Those curtains part to reveal the world of the Mechanicals, set within the confines of a dilapidated theatre. When the massive rear doors at the back of the stage open, the magic of the forest overtakes the space.
“Anyone who has stood in an empty theatre knows what a magical place it is,” McSweeny says. “Theatres are like oak wine casks, or like the wood of a Stradivarius that holds all the notes that have ever been played on it. In a theatre, something always remains of what has occurred. For me, the fairies are like imagination incarnate, and they will literally emerge from the floorboards.”
To answer that central question of what those fairies wear, Titania and Oberon’s company array themselves in a range of styles and periods, as though pulled from costumes abandoned during the theatre’s centuries-long history. To populate the three worlds of the play, McSweeny has drawn on past collaborations, and reached out to new talent. He met his Titania, Sara Topham, when he directed her in Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. “She was a marvelous Madame de Tourvel,” he says. He describes his Oberon, played by Tim Campbell, another Stratford regular, as “a strong, sexy leading man.”
McSweeny finds the duo particularly fascinating, and particularly contemporary. “Oberon and Titania are a married couple in the midst of a custody battle. They struggle, they blame each other, they wait to see who will give in.” It’s left to Puck, played by Adam Green, to run interference between the quarreling spouses.
Green, known to Shakespeare Theatre Company audiences for comic roles in All’s Well That Ends Well and The Liar, was encouraged to find the darker aspects of this beloved character. “Ever since a very young Mickey Rooney played the part in the Hollywood movie, Puck is often seen in this impish tradition,” McSweeny says. “That overlooks the fact that he is a potentially dangerous figure. It’s as if Oberon has outsourced his Id, and must constantly rein him in.”
Bruce Dow, playing Nick Bottom, leads the troupe of Mechanicals. “I first saw Bruce play Trinculo opposite Christopher Plummer in the Stratford Tempest,” McSweeny recalls. “I thought his was one of the most brilliant comic turns in Shakespeare I had yet seen.” McSweeny placed Dow at the head of a veteran troupe of actors, as skilled in real life as they are bumbling in their stage personas.
“I had an instinct that the Mechanicals should be of ‘a certain age,’” he explains. “Except for Flute, who gets stuck with all the girl’s parts. We’ve got Ted van Griethuysen as Peter Quince, and a crew of brilliant, mature comedians to join him.”
Not coincidentally, the production—so clearly focused on the comic and the magical—arrives just in time for the holidays. “It’s one of the most popular plays in the canon,” McSweeny points out. “For many, it’s their first experience of Shakespeare. We’re hoping for a lot of kids, and for people ready to be in a festive mood.”
Norman Allen’s work has been commissioned and produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Kennedy Center, the Karlin Music Theatre in Prague and the Olney Theatre Center. As former playwright-in-residence at Signature Theatre he premiered Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award, Outstanding Play) and In the Garden (Charles MacArthur Award) with subsequent productions throughout the United States, Europe and South Africa. He has written on the arts and culture for WAMU-FM, The Washington Post, Smithsonian magazine and other national publications. His work for the theatre is published by Playscripts, Inc.