Episode 2 - A Midsummer Night's Dream

Wesley: Hi, I’m Wesley.

Robyne: and I’m Robyne.

Wesley: and this is Obstructed View. 

Robyne: Today we’ll be discussing A Midsummer Night’s Dream presented by the Pearl Theatre Company and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.

Wesley:  For those of you who don't know the play, we've added a link to the plot summary as well as a performance. This particular production by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, used only five performers to tell the whole story. Those Performers are Mark Bedard, Sean McNall, Jason O'Connell, Joey Parson, and Nance Williamson

Robyne: We're gonna start off today discussing design. Our scenic designer was John McDermott, our costume designer was Jessica Wegener Shay, our lighting design was by Eric Southern, and sound design by Mikhail Fiksel. Wesley why don't you start us off?

Wesley: The design work was very bare and sparse in terms of the scenic design. You got to see the back wall of the theater, and the stage was bare of any scenic element.

Robyne: I found the scenic design to not quite be minimalist but barren.

Wesley: The scenic design really tried to fight for the empty space sort of feel and the groundwork, the stage was covered with a bunch of pebbles-

Robyne: or sand.

Wesley: and there was neon tape, multicolored neon tape placed around the set. And hanging from the rafters in the upstage area, was a blue amorphous curtain like thing -

Robyne: Yeah, it took me a while, but I really fell for the scenic design with the exception of that hanging back material, which I didn’t really see a purpose in, other than as a place for them to light. I really liked the bareness of the stage with the concept they were going for, at the same time I didn’t like the concept they went for.

Wesley: Fair. I mean for me, the bareness of the stage made sense. I liked actually almost the entirety of the design on principal when I walked into the theater.

Robyne: Yeah.

Wesley: When I sat down I was excited for the performance we were about to see. I don’t think that the set elements necessarily meshed with the performers and the work they were doing on the same level. I think they were both well done but I didn’t see a unification of the two aesthetics.

Robyne: Yeah, I really felt that there was no cohesion between the designs. I got the sense that the lighting, costume, and scenic, were all at least aiming for the same world, but not all in the same realm, if that makes sense, at least product wise. Design-wise, they may have all been on the same page. But the sound design, it was very barren, not in the same sense that the stage was, it was very lacking. There was not a lot of it. A lot of the sound was created by the performers. Which I get, but the choices that were made in the intermission, pre-music, and post show were all very non-cohesive.

Wesley: And I do think a lot of that is based off of what I was reading the pearl theatre’s dramaturge about midsummer, which was that this is a dream world where times collide. It’s sort of like from The Frogs “The setting, Ancient Athens, the time, The Present Day.” That sort of dream sense you have when you walk into your house, and for some reason, you know it’s France.  And I think they’re trying to get that sort of disjointed feel, however, I think that the design work really spoke for the directorial concept, but it didn’t really add much to the conversation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Robyne: Yeah, I just didn’t feel that the Dream aesthetic meshed. I didn’t feel as if I was in a dream. Somewhere between the - I’m really sorry Jessica, I hated those costumes, the jumpsuits with the neon strips, seemed really out of place and only there to be utilized by the lighting designer’s use of the neon lights, the black lights, which were fine every once and again but that’s how they communicated that magic was being done and that felt really kitschy and unstylized, to me, it felt sophomoric really, in it’s “NOW we’re doing magic” feel to it.

Wesley: So, I think that this production takes after the Peter Brook 1970’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream that came to New York City. If you don’t know the Peter Brook production, it was a legendary production in which he put all the actor’s inside of this white box set and using as minimal use of design techniques as possible, told the whole story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And a lot of directors since then have taken on Peter Brook’s sort of minimalist aesthetic and deconstructed story telling to create this “Theatre is Magic” kind of feel. The problem is I don’t feel as though the aesthetic, especially in the neon, with the jumpsuits, with the costumes, were brought to the present day. They felt very 1980s, very 1970s, and sort of what post apocalyptic was suppose to feel like in 1983.

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Robyne: It really felt to me like a hip-hop 80s artist experiment with neons and black lights. And I harp on that in the lighting design because there were moments in that lighting design that were absolutely gorgeous. For the most part, the lighting was fantastic, there were two or three really distinct moments, in the getting lost in the woods scene, -

Wesley: Loved it, yeah.

Robyne: - that were gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. And then it just felt like, I almost want to blame the director, Eric Tucker, for these moments of ‘and then I need this to happen,’ and so we had a flash of that neon magic, that was so unnecessary, and could have been conveyed in such a better manner.

Wesley: The moments of lighting design that were really articulate about the world these characters are going through were incredible; especially this one scene, as you said, where they’re lost in the woods and everything goes dark, and we just get side lighting and every once in a while they pop up and you see their face then they disappear. It was beautiful. Once again, much like the scenic design, I thought the lighting design was, on it’s own merit, incredible. I enjoyed the neon, I enjoyed those moments of magic. I think a lot of power was given to those magically moments. Most people do Midsummer just for the mechanicals nowadays because they are hilarious and it’s really easy to get involved with them. It was nice of them to makes us care about the plight of Titania, the plight of Oberon, and to put that as sort of ethereal nature into their lighting design. However, there were a couple of choices that felt purely aesthetic for me and that didn’t articulate this world as well as others – the couple bars of neon on the back wall that didn’t transport me the way that when everything went dark as they’re lost in the woods, as you were talking about, that was a transportive moment.

Robyne: Absolutely.

Wesley: Even when Puck took the lights away, that was a moment of theater magic, for lack of a better term.

Robyne: Absolutely, and then you had things like the natural sound of them running over that sandy pebble pit that really, in the darkness, gave you that sense of loss and confusion that was amazing.

Wesley: There were just points that really felt as though they were painting, rather than producing a production of Midsummer.

Robyne: There was a lot of concept put ONTO this production rather than concept drawn FROM this production.

Wesley: The only point that never really meshed for me was the, and I’m once again sorry Jessica, but those costumes just baffled me as to how they fit in this world with these performers. Unless these costumes were suppose to be a commentary on 1980s underground theater troupes, which they kind of got to at the end with the mechanicals play and this sort of self-referential jab. But with how streamlined and how finished and how developed everything else was, to be Midsummer, those remained lagging in unfulfilled concept.

Robyne: As we mentioned before, I loved all of the performers.

Wesley: Yeah.

Robyne: And it really felt like there were two different worlds. I said to Wesley as soon as we stepped out that this production definitely proves that you can do Midsummer with five people; I just don’t know why you would, if you can get a full cast. That being said, there were some phenomenal performances.

Wesley: So using this cast of five, their breakdown was – Sean McNall playing Theseus, Peter Quince, and Demetrius, Jason O’Connell playing Puck, Bottom, and Aegeus, Nance Williamson playing Hippolyta, Helena, a fairy, Robin Starveling, and half of Snug the Joiner, Joey Parsons playing Hermia, Titania, and Tom Snout, and Mark Bedard playing Lysander, Oberon, Francis Flute, and Snug the Joiner.

Robyne: My main issue with the performances I believe comes from the direction, that there was a lot of gross generalization and stereotypical, archetypal performance for minor characters to distinguish them in the on-stage transitions that happen that could have been much more easily conveyed through costumes. 

Wesley: Often what happens with double casting much less quadruple or even more casting is that you get broad generalizations in characterization. You don’t really get as much nuance and personality from each of these characters because they’re doing quick changes in front of you and that you need to be able to identify that these are new people every time. It’s fun story telling very often; there are a few times it doesn’t come fully to fruition.

            I would say everyone in the cast has at least one character they were able to knock out of the park.

Robyne: Absolutely. Sean McNall’s Theseus was great.

Wesley: Yeah. I really think that Jason O’Connell’s Bottom, especially during Bottom’s Dream was beautiful.

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Robyne: That is one of the best, if not THE best, performances of Bottom’s Dream I have ever seen. 

Wesley: Yeah, it really grounded that character, which was needed by that point in time.

            Nance Williamson, she was a lot of fun in a lot of things. I’m trying to think of what I preferred her in, but I think just her variety really spoke for her. Going from Hippolyta to Helena to Robin Starveling, though I really like her emotional grounding of Helena, personally. 

Robyne: And the age difference really brought an interesting texture to that casting of the four lovers.

Wesley: Yeah, so, the whole cast was of various ages, of various backgrounds, they don’t -

Robyne: it was an interestingly diverse cast, in a way that I had not expected it to be. Upon the actors initial entrance I felt that it was a very white cast, but in just a very few moments, that disappeared for me. Their variety and diversity came from other aspects of their personages.

Wesley: So also, you have Mark Bedard, who I really enjoyed as Oberon when he was playing with Puck, it really was a good counterbalance there. He was great as Francis Flute and Thisbe, with his little voice, I mean, that was a lot of fun for me. 

Robyne: I really liked him as Thisbe; I did not care for him as Francis Flute.

Wesley: Joey Parsons playing Hermia, Titania, and Tom Snout – I can’t even point out which one was supposed to be the best because they were all so great.

Robyne: This was Joey Parson’s show.

Wesley: Yeah

Robyne: She stole it.

Wesley: To be fair, she really meshed well with the mechanicals, she meshed well in the fairy world, not a scene stealer by any account; but her Titania was fantastic. It was so well formed.

Robyne: Joey really brought out the best in her fellow cast, which is fantastic to see.

Wesley: And it’s amazing that I was able to believe her as both the fan girl turned lover in Tom Snout, but at the same time this frightening and incredible magisterial Queen of the fairy world.

Robyne: She gave Titania a real depth in not only conveying this thousands-year-old Queen of these immortal beings that have magic, but she at a moment broke when Bottom made a joke, and she giggled at him, and that is almost something you never see. You never see that real softness, it’s usually just a lust for Bottom, rather than the Love-in-Idleness that it’s suppose to be; and Joey really brought that out in this production.    

Wesley:  I believed that she loved him. I believe that she fell for Bottom, not just in a sexual aspect but because she was enamored with him.

Robyne: Yeah. That being said, the Puck-Bottom pairing was hard to swallow at times. Puck is a very high-energy character; if not played more mischievous.  He kind of comes off as just an ass. Bottom can also be played as a very egotistical ass, which he was in this production as well.  But when you have the same actor playing Puck and Bottom, it can really bring out the worst in both those characters. Finding those uniquenesses between the two can be very difficult.

Wesley: Puck in particular, because while Bottom learns something and goes through Bottom’s Dream, and we get this moment of grounding with him that then transports us into the mechanicals play; sure there’s a couple of moments with Puck where he swallows his pride next to Oberon, but I wouldn’t say there’s any real point of learning with the character. He remained the mischievous fairy that he was in the beginning.

Robyne: and while that can be fine in most productions, I didn’t get a real clear sense that Oberon was in charge of Puck, I didn’t see the fear in Puck of Oberon.

Wesley: For me, it was just, they were asking for this particular performance to be too much when they put both Bottom and Puck on him. Those are very high energy, high comedy characters, especially seeing as Jason O’Connell was performing them much like the Genie in Aladdin. Very much the Robin Williams-y, going from impression to impression to impression, which isn’t wrong, it makes sense for Puck, it absolutely makes sense for Puck to be able to do these things. 

Robyne: Especially with this anachronistic concept to it.

Wesley: And to have Bottom play Pyramus like The Godfather.

Robyne: Yeah.

Wesley: Those are fun things to add in. When those things get meshed together they really can overwhelm the humor and overwhelm the subtlety.

One thing that I really did enjoy that sadly began to dissipate near the end of the production was that, when we first entered the fairy world, with Nance Williamson playing the fairy opposite Puck, I got a sense that these were creatures to be feared, and I rarely see that. Fairies are now very often just these pretty figures that go around the stage as an excuse for costumers to show off, and it was nice to see the fairies as something to be feared as part of this pagan world that the forest represents.

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Robyne: The Fay are, from European tradition, these terrifying creatures that live in the woods and play tricks on people, and steal children to eat them, and have their way with humans in the forests. I kind of got the sense for that in the initial interactions between Oberon and Titania that got really lost towards the end of the production.

Wesley: One thing I really want to give them here though is, this is the first production of Midsummer Night’s Dream that I have ever seen in which I cared about the outcome of the Indian child. 

Robyne: Yes.

Wesley: I always forget about the Indian child by the end of the play.

Robyne: Titania and Oberon have a very Martha-and-George relationship where new items tend to become weapons. But Joey Parson’s Titania really brought that emotional value of what that child meant to her and I loved that, that is something that gets completely forgotten about in most productions.

Wesley: And also, Oberon’s apathy – “I’m bored, I want another member of my posse.” But this sort of surprise at the stakes Titania has regarding what this child means to her, it feels new for both of these characters.

Robyne: Yeah.

Wesley: And that was a fun entrance into the world of the fairy kingdom. And I think that that is added to by the fact that we get this disjointed staging where we go from all these different levels of worlds and stakes. That’s one thing that I think the director did very well, I think it was done very much in collaboration with this cast, but the disjointed set up, from going from the lovers to the royalty, to the fairy kingdom, to the mechanicals, you really got a sense of all the different layers in this world combining into one.

Robyne: One of my issues with this production in particular was the first act felt as if it was a tribulation that was necessary to get to the fun of act two, which consisted of the lovers lost in the woods, the righting of Bottom and Titania, and the happy ending of the rude mechanicals and the nobles – which was the funniest I have ever seen that scene done. The gross juxtaposition of the actors judging their other characters performances was wonderful. That really made the show.  

Wesley: Well, also for Midsummer the first act has always been a necessary evil. If you read it, that first act, you like fly through it. There is no fat in that first act, it’s setting everything up to get you into the woods.

Robyne: This just felt particularly trying.

Wesley: Oh, no, it was very laborious and a lot of that had to do with the concept eeking its way into the actors’ position. The first part of the play I was thinking to myself, ‘what is this concept that I’m suppose to be grasping here?’

Robyne: Yes.

Wesley: Rather than really enjoying the play of the actors and what they were doing. Which, I think, that is what made the first part so laborious.

Robyne: Well even that first scene was incredibly trying, where they started and stopped multiple times, with various actors portraying various characters in so many different referential styles. There was a 2001: A Spacy Odyssey entrance, in which they were all apes, and there was a southern accented entrance and we got that it was all referential, but it just set us on a very bad path for the rest of the production

Wesley: Right and also for the fact that it was never brought up again really. There was a couple of points at intermission and at the end of the play, but there was never any other time in the meat of the piece where that kind of disjointed, cubist, multiple-referential framework was utilized. Now we got a lot of different forms, we got a lot of anachronisms, which are fine, but never on that level, so it really changed expectations for what was the reality of the piece we were going to see.

Robyne: Right it started me off believing I was going to see a cocaine fueled, nightmarish, post-modern, Generation X, production and that’s not at all what we saw.

Wesley: No. Now I do want to get back to the mechanicals and what you were saying about their scene. The mechanicals scene was hilarious, and a lot of that came from, and I do agree this is the best I’ve sen this dynamic used, between the nobles watching the work and the mechanicals performing the work. There were a lot of things that made the mechanicals a lot of fun, in particular their sort of self-referential, self-mocking sense of, “This is the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival coming to perform for the nobles. And it’s like change, change, change, each of them doing a real grotesque form of doing what they’d spent the whole playing doing, to tell this story.

            Throughout the whole play though, there was an added sort of sub-plot between Bottom and Joey Parson’s Tom Snout, who plays wall, where they slowly come to love each other or they become enraptured with each other.

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Robyne: Where, where she becomes enraptured with him and he kind of just goes for it after he’s had the realization that he is lonely.

Wesley: He is lonely but also she looks a lot like Titania.

Robyne: Oh. Yeah.

Wesley: So they added that in. And it’s difficult to add something like that in to a Shakespeare play and help it feel natural and make you feel excited about it. And I felt so excited for them when they started making out on the stage. And I was really enjoying that moment, a lot because I’d learned to love those two actors in those characters.

Robyne: Right, my biggest issue, and maybe it’s there as a juxtaposition was the really ridiculous gay sex jokes that were out in with the whole Wall thing, talking and kissing through the wall, which was a guys crotch, it was so unnecessary.

Wesley: And it didn’t match the levels that the rest of their staging met.  

Robyne: There were a number of times where we mixed high-brow with low-brow in this production and it made the low-brow sound so hollow because it wasn’t done well.

Wesley: Yeah, there were a lot of gay jokes. There were a lot of poor interactions with the audience. There were a lot of anachronisms that -

Robyne: There was that whole sex scene between Titania and Bottom that was not necessary.

Wesley: It really felt desperate.

Robyne: And Grotesque.

Wesley: And it didn’t match what I think Titania felt for Bottom in what we saw in the scenes before.

Robyne: yeah, and I’m all for a good Bacchanal but that, again, just rang hollow. 

Wesley: It seemed like performers trying to make people excited about Shakespeare by appealing to the lowest common denominator, which happens a lot in New York right now. It happens a lot in America right now.

Robyne: I got the impression that we were suppose to excuse them for being rude mechanicals, but they didn’t earn that because of their treatment of the language and because of their level of skill was too high. They were not rude mechanicals in the least; they were some wonderful performers.

Wesley: If this was suppose to have been possessing them to tell this story, as I think might have been the intention by that sort of epilogue

Robyne: Right. There was a time warp epilogue at the end of the piece. After all the nobles retire to bed at midnight, the play rewinds for a second just to jump to the rude mechanicals rehearsing in the forest and Puck poseses them to deliver his final monologue, “if we be friends…” 

Wesley: “Robin will restore amends.” And then we all applaud and they look stunned at us as if they didn’t know they were performing for an audience this whole time. The difficulty with this is the difficulty with nearly any meta-performance which is, you start to then piece apart, “wait,  if this was Puck the whole time, why was Puck using this poetic language? Why was Puck needing this performance to be told? How was this fun for Puck? What was Puck doing?” A lot of cracks came out of the plaster using this framework of the possessed performers.

Robyne: And I felt that it was Eric Tucker just not being able to help himself with the direction. He just couldn’t leave well enough alone. He couldn’t trust that the production was doing what it was supposed to do.

Wesley: If they would have ended with the mechanicals scene going then to Puck, I would have been happy for the whole cast then deliver Puck’s monologue. But if they would have ended with that sort of simplicity, it would have been a very different feeling leaving the play. But instead, I left a little baffled, and more irritated than curious. 

Robyne: Yeah, because I loved the ending up until that point and then they finished on that note and I left wondering why. Why? Why? Why did that have to happen?

Wesley: And it didn’t excite me in the same way that the performes did.

Robyne: And I can’t find a conceptual defense for it.

Wesley: No, cause getting us in to intermission, they walked backwards off the set, and then getting us in to act two, they did the same exact thing, walking forward with some more wheel grinding and a lot of it was very impressive in terms of performance.

Robyne: yeah, I’m sure that if you had recorded Bottom’s delivery and played it backwards it would be English.

Wesley: It would be, probably, perfect verse, but-

Robyne: It just didn’t need to exist.

Wesley: The rest of it was so strong. The poetry was so strong. And Nance Williamson’s Helena – her delivery of sorrow, trying to chase after Demetrius was enough.

Robyne: Yeah.

Wesley: The performers put so much care into telling A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Eric Tucker’s concept became too much for it.

Robyne: Which is not to say that his direction was terrible.

Wesley: No.

Robyne: There were moments where, while I did not at all care for what was happening on stage, I really appreciate how structured the, would you say post modern?

Wesley: Oh yeah.

Robyne: -movement styles were. The creation of Bottom and Bottom being completely lost while bound by his fellow actors – the actual, physical, human actors in this production not the actors in the production of Pyramus and Thisbe – was wonderful.

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His sense of physicality as an ass, were wonderful. There were moments of the players leaving Athens in an elevator singing “Girl from Impanema,” that worked really well for me. And Just confused me as to why the other anachronistic pieces were not cut when they didn’t work and if they were recognized as not working.

Wesley: This must have been very much devised.  I can’t imagine that this was just a directing coming in going, “I know exactly how this is going to be staged, I know exactly what you all are going to be doing.” This clearly speaks well for collaborative theater. To have talented, very well seasoned actors playing and this director then parsing out what goes where and how best to tell the story.

            Those moments, they were cinematic moments with sharp cuts between places – with us being above people, and now below people, and now to the side of people – that were seamless and fun. The problem was when they got overshadowed by a looming concept.

Robyne: And to me, directors are responsible for the end performances and it should have been up to him or a producer to have helped clean up those performances, to wipe away some of the stereotypical, archetypal mannerisms and vocal choices; unless that was the initial design, and then to work them further in. And there were things that just really irked me, like Demetrius’s Spanish. Not only his Spanish accent but his actual speaking of Spanish felt completely put on to this production.  Egius’s homosexuality felt put on to this production. And I did not care for Snug the Joiner being this weird conjoined twin ‘Other’ thing.

Wesley: So for me, Demetrius’s Spanish was enjoyable and made sense for the character, it didn’t seem so put upon. Egius’s homosexuality was just so broad, so unnecessary and didn’t really make sense for the character, I don’t really know howthey got to point B there. I loved Snug the Joiner. I laughed so hard. Just given how this is a world of such mania they’ve made, to have this sort of monster zombie come out, out of nowhere, it made no sense, and I thought it was hilarious. Especially given, always going back to her, Joey Parson’s reaction of “Oh God!”  Every time, with terror. I mean, it just makes me laugh, every time. There was some diminishing returns there by the time we got to the final mechanicals’ scene. But we didn’t need that comedy adding in.

Robyne: So Wesley, any other thoughts?

Wesley: I think in general this is a, off/on production that stars some very incredible performances.

Robyne: I completely agree. A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Pearl Theater until October 31st. Wesley, my question is – Is the show worth the $65 ticket for non-members?

Wesley: It is if you really enjoy seeing new versions of Shakespeare, but if your interests go anywhere beyond that I would say this is one to miss.

Robyne: I would be very pleased if I saw this production at a $20 ticket.

Wesley: Yeah, at La Mama. However, given that price, if you have the stakes to see deconstructed Shakespeare, or have made a hobby of seeing Midsummer or Shakespeare performances, this is one probably not to be missed.

We hope you enjoy the podcast and that you will share your thoughts with us.

Robyne: As always, you can find us and join the conversation on facebook at facebook.com/ObstructedViewPodcast, on twitter @Obstructed_View, on soundcloud at soundcloud.com/obstructedview, on tumblr obstructedviewpodcast.tumblr.com, or at Obstructed-view.com

Wesley: Special Thanks today goes out Ari Edelson, Alyssa Jenette, and Julian Fleisher for your love and support. This is Wesley.

Robyne: And Robyne,

Wesley: And remember,

Robyne: Dream the Impossible Dream.